(David Jenkins, Staff)
WILLISTON, N.D. -- The Charleston Fighting Squirrels put up one heck of a fight against Heartland East, but in the end, the climb through the loser's bracket proved to be their undoing during Monday afternoon's Senior Babe Ruth Midwest Plains Regional Tournament championship game.
Charleston fell to Heartland East, 10-3, allowing all 10 runs in a three-inning stretch.
The Squirrels lost in the first round of the tournament and had to make their way through the loser's bracket.
Charleston won five straight elimination games before Monday's loss.
(David Jenkins, Staff)
While the Squirrels (35-16 overall) fell short of claiming a championship, Minner knew his team belonged, despite losing in the first round.
"Anytime you get in the loser's bracket on the first day, you handcuff yourself," said Minner. "That means you have to play the maximum number of games the tournament allows. When we lost that first game, I didn't feel like Kansas was one of the better teams out there. We were kind of anxious -- this was our first time at being in anything like this. I felt like we swung at everything.
"We sat around and watched every game that day. After watching all the games, I felt like we could beat these teams. We felt like we were as good as anybody up here. We told the kids, 'this is something that we can do.'"
The Squirrels' most exciting win came against Lamar, Colo., when they overcame a 3-0 deficit with four runs on six hits in the bottom of the seventh.
"Just the look on the kids' faces and the excitement of that game -- it was just unbelievable," said Minner. "Just to be a part of that is definitely the highlight of the tournament."
Charleston led Monday's championship game with a run in the third inning. Heartland East took a 2-1 lead in the fourth, but the Squirrels tied it with a run in the bottom half of that inning.
That's when the wheels came off for Charleston.
The Squirrels had a baserunning error in the fourth. Then, Heartland East started pounding the Squirrels pitching with six runs in the fifth to blow the game wide open.
"We didn't make a few plays and, then, it got ugly," said Minner. "We made a baserunning blunder that cost us a run or two in fourth inning. Then we misplayed a couple pop ups and that led to their big inning."
Heartland East ended up with a 10-2 lead. Charleston scored a run in the seventh to reach the final margin.
Paul Johnson and Chase McClendon each had two hits to lead the Squirrels.
The Squirrels' pitching staff allowed 11 hits and 10 runs, but it was that same pitching staff that helped lead the team to the title game.
"If it wasn't for our pitchers, we wouldn't have gotten where we were," said Minner. "Each one of them stepped up their game. I couldn't be prouder of the staff. We played solid defense all weekend. We rolled some double plays and we had a lot of clutch hitting. This is one of the most clutch hitting teams I've been around."
Minner hopes the whole experience will help his high school varsity team -- Minner also is the head baseball coach of the Charleston Bluejays. The Squirrels also included players from East Prairie, Kelly and Oran.
"Just making it this far is incredible," said Minner. "This is a big step for our program, Charleston and the surrounding area. The thing I'm most proud of is the community support we've had. This trip would not have been possible if not for them."