By Alex Rivera – Assistant Sports Editor
After a walk-off victory over Houston Baptist on Wednesday night, the Utah Valley Wolverines were looking to keep their national spotlight on a little while longer in Game 11 of the Great West Conference Baseball Tournament Thursday night when they faced the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota.
Early on in the game, UVU had a chance in the top of the second inning to open the floodgates when Austin Heaps singled to center, Billy Burgess walked and Kai Hatch singled to left after attempting to bunt for two strikes, and loaded the bases for catcher, Alex Exon. What seemed to be a sacrifice fly to deep right field foul territory quickly turned into a double play at second base. Although the run came through, the Wolverines now had a man on third and two outs after right fielder Sam Alt threw Hatch out tagging from first. Willie Pratt followed it up with a strike out to end the inning.
The Wolverines still managed to break out for a big fourth inning scoring four times against starting pitcher, Tyler Ruemmele who entered the game with a 10.64 ERA. Burgess walked to lead off the inning. After Hatch flied out for the first out of the inning, Exon singled to center field, moving Burgess to third. Exon stole second base which set the field for a two-run single by Pratt to put UVU up 3-0. After Pratt was caught stealing, Cole Butcher walked on a pass ball and successfully stole second base. Jake Rickenbach chopped one between the third baseman and shortstop which scored Butcher from second, one of Rickenbach’s four RBI’s in the game. Sean Moysh got hit by a pitch and with men on first and second, Goose Kallunki made his first hit of the game up the middle to score Rickenbach and put the Wolverines up 5-0.
UVU starting pitcher Preston Olson did not need much help after that and picked up his eighth win of the season after pitching a solid 5.1 innings and striking out five, allowing only two runs to score. Olson also retired seven batters in a row at one point.
“He gave us a great start,” head coach Eric Madsen said of his starting pitcher. “He gave us that opportunity to go right from the beginning and controlled the game. He’s been good all year but tonight he was very good.”
Rickenbach scored all four times he reached base and also had four RBI’s. His aggression went beyond the plate and he led out a defensive play at third base in the bottom of the fifth inning by diving for a ball that was just fair of the foul line and throwing out the runner hustling to first.
“He’s really turned our club a little bit in some roles with what he’s done both defensively and at the plate and even in our dugout,” Madsen said. “I’ve been very proud of Jake.”
UVU also scored four runs in the sixth inning behind a Rickenbach single to drive in a run. The bases were loaded again after Sean Moysh walked. Kallunki hit a sacrifice fly to drive in a run. After Austin Heaps grounded out to advance the runners to second and third, Burgess hit a two-run single to increase the Wolverine lead 9-1.
North Dakota had four different players score the four runs they were able to push across. Kris Kwak scored in the fifth inning, Sam Alt scored in the sixth, and Zack Trygstad along with Kyle Bolander scored the final two runs for the Fighting Sioux in the seventh.
UVU added three insurance runs in both the seventh and ninth innings and went on to win the game 15-4 and in turn will play in the championship game on Saturday afternoon against the winner of the loser’s bracket. It will be much more than just a championship game for UVU as they hope to keep their national bid alive for the National playoffs.
“We got one more game and that’s all that we can control,” Madsen said about the upcoming days. “Our guys take a lot of pride in what they’re doing. There’s no pressure and no nervousness for them. It is just a bunch of guys doing what they love to do; winning.”
“We have a lot more to play for,” Rickenbach said of his team. “Our goal is to win this Great West Conference championship and then hopefully get invited to Regional. We bring a lot more intensity to each game because we know there are bigger goals out there for us.”
Utah Valley will play Saturday at 2:30 pm for the championship and then Monday morning, UVU will find out if they will be playing in the National playoffs as the selections are made.