DES MOINES - Every high school baseball team across Iowa dreams of ending their season playing at Principal Park.
Ninth-ranked Algona will now have that opportunity here this week.
Making their third state appearance in school history, the seventh-seeded Bulldogs (27-7 overall) will face No. 2 seed Sergeant Bluff-Luton (24-11) in a Class 3A quarterfinal Tuesday night.
Team members of the state qualifying Algona baseball team are, front row, left to right, Collin Besch, Bryce Bradley, Josh Strohman, Nick Stein, Landon Rash, Jackson Helmers. Middle: Quinton Nielsen, Matt Hamilton, Jeremy Rurup, Tyler Garman, Tyler Frideres, Brandon Lloyd, Cameron Lahndorf, Justin Wykoff. Back:?Head Coach Mike Elsbecker, Assistant Coach Blair Bradley, Nathan Benson, Austin Long, Weston Shaw, Justin Raymond, Alex Remy, Blakes Elsbecker, Assistant Coach Tom?Elsbecker.
First pitch is set for 6 p.m.
"Every year I've coached, the ultimate goal is to win a state title," said AHS first-year head coach Mike Elsbecker, who previously directed North Sentral Kossuth to a 1A state crown in 2008. "Your highest goal always has to be the highest possible achievement at your level. You should never walk into a season thinking you should only win half of your games. We talked about trying to compete or at least show improvement. We didn't sit down or talk about a certain number of games we wanted to win. Our message was to play hard for seven innings, and it's just kind of built from game to game."
During its current postseason run, North Central Conference champion Algona ousted Nevada (11-1), Gilbert (8-7) and No. 10 Humboldt (3-2). As a team, the Bulldogs rank seventh among all 3A programs in hits (324), eighth in batting average (.326), ninth in runs (250), tied for 10th in ERA (2.40), 11th in RBI (199), tied for 11th in on-base percentage (.426) and tied for 11th in slugging percentage (.422).
Senior Tyler Frideres (.500 BA, 60 H, 43 RBI, 36 R), sophomore Blake Elsbecker (.416 BA, 47 H, 41 R, 27 RBI), junior Nathan Benson (.385 BA, 40 H, 32 RBI, 20 R) and senior Weston Shaw (.346 BA, 45 H, 36 R, 23 RBI) are the top offensive threats for Algona, which has won five straight and 12 of its past 13 games.
On the mound, the Bulldogs lean heavily on Shaw (11-0; 72 IP, 48 H, 20 BB, 100 K, 0.78 ERA) and senior Austin Long (6-3; 57 2/3 IP, 57 H, 20 BB, 40 K, 3.64 ERA).
Algona has scored in double figures nine times this season, while blanking six opponents. The Bulldogs went just 13-20 last summer, including 4-14 in the NCC.
"It's really hard to say one area as the strength of our team," Elsbecker said. "We have some very good high school hitters, and our pitching has been solid, too. We've kicked the ball a little bit here and there, but defensively we've been really good for the most part. When we do make mistakes, we've had guys pick other guys up. We've had a lot of big hits with two strikes or two outs. We're just a relentless team that keeps coming at you."
En route to Des Moines, the Warriors eliminated Storm Lake (18-0), Le Mars (4-0) and defending state semifinalist and No. 2 Sioux City Heelan (2-1). Catalysts for Sergeant Bluff-Luton are junior Spencer Wyant (.386 BA, 34 H, 30 RBI, 6 HR), senior Connor Schlotfeldt (.360 BA, 40 H, 20 RBI, 16 R), senior Thomas Wisecup (.330 BA, 38 H, 34 R, 33 RBI) and freshman Ryley McGregor (.323 BA, 32 H, 23 R, 17 RBI). Pitching-wise, Morningside College signee Cody Selig (8-1; 60 2/3 IP, 24 H, 26 BB, 95 K, 0.35 ERA) and senior Bryce Hanson (8-1; 67 1/3 IP, 59 H, 32 BB, 99 K, 2.81 ERA) form a reliable 1-2 punch for SB-L, whose staff sports a combined 3.01 ERA and 286 strikeouts in 235 innings.
"We saw (the Warriors) at the Carroll tournament, and they just have a solid team," said Elsbecker, the brother of Fort Dodge athletic and activities director Matt Elsbecker. "From the reports I've gotten, Selig hits 84 to 86 with his fastball and throws three pitches. They also have a real good offensive catcher (Wyant)."
Sergeant Bluff-Luton comes in batting .296 with 277 hits, 213 runs and 180 RBI on the year. The Warriors, who finished third in the Missouri River Conference this summer, have prevailed in six straight and 14 of their last 15 games.
Elsbecker, who owns a career mark of 285-125, is the first coach in Iowa prep history to guide three different schools - Sentral of Fenton, North Sentral Kossuth and Algona - to the state baseball tournament. He also played on the 1986 1A state championship squad for Bancroft St. John. Elsbecker is assisted by his brother Tom, who led North Kossuth to back-to-back 1A state titles in 1996 and 1997. Blake Elsbecker is Tom's son and Mike and Matt's nephew. Matt Elsbecker also coached the Dodgers to five 4A state appearances, including a runner-up effort in 2012.
"I've lived in Algona with my wife (Laura) and family for about 19 years since we got married," Elsbecker said. "Having a nephew on the team makes it even more special. With Blake's dad being a former head coach and a college player, I don't look at him as a kid that needs a lot of coaching. It's a situation where maybe I just guide him a little bit and try to support him through success and failure."
Prior to this season, Algona qualified for state in 1999 and 2010. Sergeant Bluff-Luton made its other trips in 2001 and 2003.
Veteran Warrior head coach Rick Admire holds a 35-year record of 612-365. In the substate final, SB-L avenged four regular season losses to the Crusaders.
Tuesday's winner between the Bulldogs and Warriors advances to meet either third-seeded and fifth-ranked Fairfield (30-7) or No. 6 seed Dallas Center-Grimes (22-14) in a 3A semifinal here Friday afternoon at 2 p.m.