For as much success as the Gillette Roughriders have had under coach Nate Perleberg, they’ve had a hard time winning their own home tournament.
Before this past weekend, the Post 42 American Legion baseball team had only won the Hladky Memorial Tournament once during Perleberg’s 15-year tenure.
That changed Sunday after a packed week of baseball with a 7-5 win over the Denver-based Colorado Ducks.
“We compared this week to kind of like a state tournament — six games in five days,” senior Tanner Richards said. “This is the second time we’ve won this tournament in 15 years.
“It just shows the maturity that we have as a team and it shows we can push through the five days and still be playing good ball. Once the game was tied 5-5, we were almost more ready to go. It just kind of shows the veteran (nature and)maturity of the team.”
The first three wins of the tournament were powered by pitching gems from Gillette’s veteran rotation, but the championship game all came down to a clutch at-bat.
The Ducks had momentum in the sixth inning of the title game after dramatically tying the game at 5 by stealing home plate. That capped a four-run outburst that ended an otherwise brilliant start by Gillette’s Matt Newlin.
Gillette’s response was swift and decisive, as Mason Powell started the rally with a lead-off double and Kaleb Lewis walked behind him to start the bottom of the sixth inning.
Two quick outs followed, putting some pressure on the Roughriders, but Richards came through with one of the biggest hits of his American Legion baseball career.
With a full count, Richards drilled a hart-hit ball into right field. I had just enough lift to tail off just out of reach of Colorado’s sprinting right fielder.
“As a competitor, I live for moments like that. All I was trying to do was make it on base,” Richards said. “I just kept working myself into a deeper and deeper count. He finally gave me the pitch and I just put a good swing on it and luckily it burned the right fielder.”
The whole team left the dugout to to greet Powell and Lewis as they crossed the plate and to shout approval to Richards on second base. About five minutes after the Ducks’ dugout was full of energy and Gillette’s was quiet, the tables had completely turned.
Kaden Race, who struggled controlling his pitches in the sixth inning after relieving Newlin, closed out the game with authority and the Roughriders hoisted the trophy in front of their home fans.
While Richards went home the hero Sunday night, Gillette was led by its pitching staff for most of the tournament. Senior Hayden Sylte started the streak of top-notch performances with the first perfect game in Perleberg’s tenure Thursday.
The Roughriders followed that with a complete-game one-hitter from Powell and a six-inning one-hitter from Bode Rivenes on back-to-back nights. It was an unprecedented stretch, giving up three hits in three games and outscoring opponents 24-0.
“Pitching-wise, it’s just uncommon. What we have right now is not the norm,” Perleberg said. “You’ve probably got five or six guys that could be aces on a lot of teams that I’ve coached in 15 years here.”
Besides Sylte’s perfect game and Richards’ title-clinching double, one of the highlights of the weekend was a rare triple play Thursday night against Gallatin Valley, Montana.
On the mound, Rivenes was struggling with his command a little at the start of the game, but he said the electric defensive play in the top of the third inning put him on the right track.
With runners at first and second base, Rivenes pumped a strikeout past a batter, then Richards fired a throw to first base for the pickoff. Then Mason Powell threw a strike across the diamond to Sylte at third, who tagged out the advancing runner for the triple play.
“That triple play really got me going and the adrenaline pumping. It really got me focused up,” Rivenes said. “That’s the first triple play I think I’ve ever seen.”
Apart from Richards, who went 7-14 with six RBIs during the tournament, Race and Lewis also had big weeks at the plate. Race, who has been on a tear for 12 games, went 6-13 with five RBIs. Lewis was red hot to start the tournament and finished 9-13 with eight RBIs.
The win moves the Roughriders to 28-5 on the season and it also marks just the second time Perleberg has won the Hladky Memorial Tournament. Gillette played six games in five days, which Richards said was “exhausting,” but that’s the type of stretch the team will have to endure during the postseason.
“It’s hard to win that tournament. … I thought we had a great weekend. Our kids competed every day and came with a focus level,” Perleberg said. “We talked before the game about having that championship identity.
“You’re going to have some ups and downs and you’re going to have to stay even keel. We did a great job with that.”