The main difference between this year's version of the Dodge City Conquistadors baseball team and teams from recent seasons has been the ability to persevere and not give up.
That trait was never more evident than the way the Conqs came back from five runs down to win Sunday's nightcap over the Garden City Broncbusters 6-5 in 10 innings at a time they didn't know were two innings away from losing everything they had worked hard all spring to possess.
The Conqs won the first game 9-5 to set themselves up for the sweep. Garden City won both games of Saturday's twinbill 8-4 and 15-5 to split the series at two games apiece.
"The guys knew what was in front of them and they came out Sunday with a little more energy," said Dodge City baseball head coach Phil Stephenson. "We still made some mistakes, but we didn't beat ourselves like we did Saturday.
"I'm thrilled for our guys because they worked hard. This team has a little resolve and there's a little bit of intestinal fortitude there. We were a good offensive team a year ago, but we couldn't figure out how to win one-run games and lost 13 of them. We have turned that around this year and I think that's a big difference."
Sweeping the Broncbusters Sunday gave the Conqs (30-23) the right to host a Region VI first round series with a tiebreaker over Colby (both at 19-13). What they didn't know until after the game was that Butler had won both of their Sunday games over Pratt and anything other than a sweep for the Conqs would have forced them to fall to the No. 5 seed and travel for their first round series.
"All we were thinking about was Colby and we didn't care about Butler at that point," Stephenson said. "Our job was to win two and we knew we would host a playoff round because of the tiebreaker with Colby. We knew we couldn't win the league anymore, but we still had a chance to host."
The winning run in the nightcap came when Connor Ross hit a ground ball to third base with two out and runners at second and third. The ball hit the dirt in front of Garden City third baseman Kevin Czarnecki and squibbed away to his right, allowing Parker Jones to score on third base on the infield single.
"That ball hits him right above the hands where if it was a force play, then we were going into the 11th inning, but it wasn't," Stephenson said. "When the ball hit the dirt and squibbed sideways, I went 'Good grief, what a way to win a ball game', but I'll take it. Sometimes you have to find a way to win one-run games and we did (Sunday)."
Page 2 of 3 - The Broncbusters (26-25, 20-12) scored single runs in the second, third, fourth, seventh and eighth of the nightcap to build a 5-0 lead going into the bottom of the eighth as the Conqs couldn't find ways to score, even with the bases loaded and no one out in the sixth inning.
Alex Buechler had RBI doubles in the second and fourth innings; Tyler Alitz had a RBI groundout in the third and a RBI single in the seventh; and Czarnecki had a RBI single in the eighth.
The Conqs didn't score in the sixth with the bases loaded with no one out, leaving Stephenson to admit that might have been the ballgame; but his club had other ideas when they were finally able to sustain an offensive push against Busters' starting pitcher Brooks Trujillo.
Dodge City answered with five runs in the eighth inning. Conner Koepp and Shay Lynes opened the frame with walks and both scored on a double by Scott Hillier. Haden Houska and Chris Ramsey followed with run scoring singles, and the final run came on a Garden City error from a pop-up hit by Jones.
"We finally got the crooked number on the board and we had a little help, and sometimes we have to have a little help," Stephenson said. "They made a couple of mistakes and we took full advantage of it; but we got some clutch plays, too. Crooked numbers always create problems and you can look at our half of the board to see that."
Reliever Giles Fox was the winning pitcher for the Conqs, working three innings and giving up five hits, one run, two walks and striking out one.
The Conqs opened quickly against Garden City in Sunday's opener. Koepp hit a RBI single and Hillier followed with a three-run home run to build a 4-0 lead.
The score went up to 6-2 in the second inning as Ramsey hit a run scoring sacrifice fly and Ross followed with a RBI single after the Busters scored two runs on a sacrifice fly hit by Zach Barton and a Dodge City error.
The Conqs extended their lead to 8-3 after three innings. Czarnecki hit a RBI single in the top of the frame before Dodge City answered with a RBI single by Lacayo, who scored the second run on a Busters' error.
Both squads' final runs came in the fourth: the Busters on a RBI sacrifice fly by Mason Fischer and a groundout by Alitz; and the Conqs' on Koepp's home run.
Clayton Brewster was the winning pitcher for the Conqs.
Saturday's first game saw the Conqs take a 3-1 lead after the opening inning. Hillier hit a two-run double and Jones hit a RBI sacrifice fly after Dodge City allowed a run to score on an outfield error.
Page 3 of 3 - The game changed in the top of the fourth after Hillier had the ball bounce out of his mitt in what could have been the third out. Garden City then scored seven runs with a three-run home run by Alitz, three RBI singles and an error.
Dodge City could score only one run in the bottom of the fourth to complete the scoring on a RBI groundout by Ramsey.
Ross Vance was the losing pitcher, giving up 11 hits and eight runs. He walked four and struck out one.
The Busters continued their mastery on the day in the nightcap. Garden City scored five in the first and five more in the fifth. Nolan Barrientos hit a two-run home run to highlight the Busters' first inning; while Buechler's two-run home run followed by a three-run shot by Kaleb Zimmer accounted for the fifth inning tallies.
Dodge City trailed 14-1 going into the bottom of the seventh (the Conqs' only run coming on a groundout by Croix Sedillo), but the Conqs scored four in the frame: Trent Troxell and Ross knocked in runs on sacrifice flies; Sedillo singled and later scored on a passed ball; and Nick Comito scored on an error.
The Busters closed out the game with a run in the top of the eighth.
The split gives the Jayhawk West title to Seward County, with Garden City a game behind and the Conqs and Colby two games behind. Butler is 18-12 in the league and still has a chance to move into a second place tie with the Broncbusters with a Monday sweep of Pratt.
"In this league, it always comes down to the last weekend to battle for playoff spots," Stephenson said. "I'm proud of our guys. We had lost five in a row before (Sunday) and we could have come out and just rolled over, but we didn't.
"We have a ways to go. We're going to have our hands full with whoever comes here this weekend. We have to be ready to play and go from there. The guys we are going to throw (Vance, Jagger Harjo and Brewster) are going to give us a chance to win every ballgame and that's all you can ask."