Cards soar to state tournament with win over Royall

Eleva-Strum fans celebrated in the background after Carter Gunderson slid home for the winning run in Tuesday's sectional final against Royall. (Times photograph by Andrew Dannehy)

Eleva-Strum catcher Jake Bjerke lunged to tag out Royall's Jett Bender in the sixth inning of the Cardinals' sectional final win on Tuesday. (Times photograph by Andrew Dannehy)

Royall catcher Tucker Wildes slammed the ball in frustration while Eleva-Strum fans celebrated the team's sectional final win at Blair-Taylor high school on Tuesday. (Times photograph by Andrew Dannehy)

Eleva-Strum players mobbed Noah Martinson after the sophomore's walk-off single that advanced the team to the state tournament. (Times photograph by Andrew Dannehy)

Before walking off the field after suffering a sectional final loss a year ago, Eleva-Strum coach CJ Christenson’s message to his players was to remember how they felt seeing eventual state-champion Ithaca celebrate in front of them at Blair-Taylor High School. 

Those weren’t just hollow words or coach speak. Christenson took his own advice, arguably to the point that advancing to the state tournament became an obsession. That made last week Tuesday’s 2-1 walk-off win over Royall on the exact same field sweeter. 

“I watched that Ithaca game a lot this offseason. I watched Ithaca hold the gold ball every day, I have a picture of that on my phone,” Christenson said, adding he used that photo as motivation for his team. “A lot of these guys took the initiative this offseason getting better, stronger, bigger, all of that stuff. When you put all of that together, this is what you get.”

Neither team managed much offensively in the first six innings, but when it came time to win the game, the Cardinals were aggressive.

Tied 1-1 entering the bottom of the seventh, senior Carter Gunderson sent the first pitch he saw into centerfield. Sophomore Calvin Barneson then got the ball to drop just inside fair territory beyond first base to put two on with no outs.

After a sacrifice bunt by Alex Anderson moved the runners to second and third, Royall made a pitching change, swapping Seth Brandau for Gunnar Wopat. 

The Panthers elected to intentionally walk Brady Zimple to bring up the bottom of the Cardinals’ batting order in Noah Martinson. That worked out just as Christenson expected. 

“Right before that inning, me and one of the assistant coaches were talking about who was going to get that last hit and we landed on Noah,” Christenson said. 

The sophomore delivered putting a pitch into center field. The Royall outfielder collected the ball cleanly and made a throw home, but the ball bounced away from the catcher as Gunderson slid in for the winning run. 

“Noah had a great day all day,” Christenson said. “The first game, this game… he played about as well as he can play.”

In addition to scoring the winning run, Gunderson was the winning pitcher, allowing just one hit in seven innings while striking out seven. Gunderson took the loss in last year’s sectional final game, which his coach said motivated him this year.

“All he has had circled on his calendar is this game,” Christenson said. “He said ‘I don’t want to go in in relief, I want to start this one. I want to get some redemption.’ He definitely did that, he threw a hell of a game.” 

Gunderson retired the first 12 batters he faced before running into a little trouble in the fifth and sixth innings.

The E-S pitcher hit Royall’s Tyrus Wildes to start the fifth inning. Wildes moved to second after a walk and third on a wild pitch. Royall’s only run scored on a double steal in which E-S catcher Jake Bjerke threw to second and the throw back home was late. Gunderson got out of the inning with a strikeout.

The Cardinals were saved by perhaps the play of the game in the sixth as the Panthers loaded the bases with no outs. Jett Bender reached on a throwing error by Gunderson before Wopat smashed a pitch to the warning track. That likely would’ve brought home a run, but the ball bounced over the fence for a ground rule double, meaning Bender had to stay on third. The Cardinals chose to issue a free pass to Brandau, loading the bases with no outs.

It looked as if the Panthers were going to take the lead when Tucker Wildes lifted a Gunderson pitch to left field — but practice paid off for the Cardinals. Ty Fjelstad made the catch for the out and quickly transferred the ball to his throwing hand. While Christenson said his father was calling for Fjelstad to throw the ball to third to stop a runner from advancing, the E-S senior launched the ball home. 

The throw hit Bjerke up the third baseline. The E-S catcher caught the ball and lunged at Bender, tagging the runner before he slid home for a double play. 

“(It’s) something we work on quite a bit, actually,” Christenson said. “Just the angles and if you’re coming in and you have that play then make it. He threw a dot.”

Gunderson got a flyout to end the inning.

Gunderson struck out the side in the seventh before scoring the winning run in the bottom half of the inning.

E-S scored first as Brady Nichols walked in the bottom of the first inning and scored on a sacrifice fly by Tyler Webb. 

The Cardinals had chances to score more runs, none better than the fifth inning when they had two runners tagged out attempting to advance home. 

E-S enters the state tournament with a 21-8 record. That is worse than the 24-2 mark they ended with a year ago, but Christenson said that is due to tough competition, which prepared them for this time of year. 

“I think six of the teams we played this year were in sectional finals today,” Christenson said. “We’ve seen good pitching, seen good fielding, seen games where we have had to play as clean as possible.” 

The Cardinals will play on Tuesday morning, either at 9 a.m. or approximately 10:30. The exact time and opponent had yet to be decided as of this writing. Joining E-S in the state tournament is Johnson Creek, Pacelli and Solon Springs/Northwood. 


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