The Badlands Big Sticks celebrated their first Expedition League championship after holding off the Western Nebraska Pioneers 6-5 in the third and deciding game of the title series on Sunday night at Oregon Trail Park Stadium in Gering.
Badlands, which finished the season with a record of 48-20, led from start to finish after building a 5-0 lead through five and a half innings. The Pioneers made things interesting by scoring two runs in both the sixth and seventh innings before threatening again in their final at bat in the ninth.
Cole Gambill scored on Colin Ludwig’s single to pull the Pioneers within 6-5 with just one out. However, the Badlands defense turned a game-ending double play to claim the title. Cort Dietrich earned the save for the winner pitcher Malik Barrington.
Western Nebraska concluded the season with a final record of 49-16.
Pioneers head coach Jimmy Turk was pleased with his team’s play all season. He said they just came up short against a Badlands team that played better over the course of the weekend series.
“It’s been a great season. These guys get so close in a span of three months and the biggest thing is seeing all these guys leave now,” Turk said. “They go their own ways after being so close and we had a special bond over the last three months. We had a really great year. What I am most proud of with this group is how much adversity they overcame and they mentally got tougher. They never made excuses or complained. These guys overcame a lot that people don’t know about.”
Turk knew it wouldn’t be easy winning a second straight championship even aftering claiming the series opener on Friday. He said the Pioneers left it all on the field Sunday night.
“We were tested and I told them that the toughest team would win this series,” Turk said. “Badlands played well and deserved to win. We had our opportunities and we just didn’t get it done. But we had a great regular season and for us to be in the championship game is a good experience for these guys. It didn’t finish the way they wanted to, so a lot of guys felt like they let the team down and the community down. They didn’t. They gave their best and left it out there for sure.”
Sunday’s contest started following a weather delay that lasted two and a half hours.
The Big Sticks scored one in the first as Bryson Ford scored on a Conner VanCleave double.
Badlands added two more runs each in the third and fourth innings. Nathan Sanders led off the third with a home run before Kairmana Souza-Paaluhi scored on a sacrifice fly.
The fourth saw Badlands score twice on just one hit. Garrett Dupuis scored the first run on a Souza-Paaluhi single with Ryan Gross scoring to make it 5-0.
Western Nebraska finally got on the scoreboard with two runs in the sixth on three hits. Jacen Roberson scored the first run on a Will Olson single. Cole Gambill later scored on an Alonso Bibiano single.
The Big Sticks added what would end up being the winning run in the top of seventh as Michael Fuhrman scored on a Dylan Ditzenberger sacrifice fly.
The Pioneers kept battling, scoring two more in the seventh on four hits. Roberson scored on a double by Gambill. Gambill then scored on an Olson single.
Western Nebraska totaled eight hits compared to Badlands’ seven. Olson, Gambill and Bibiano all finished the game with two hits each for the Pioneers.
Landon Odom started on the mound for the Pioneers. He struck out four in four innings of work. Ty Callahan, Jaykob Acosta, and Alex Jorgensen all pitched in relief, combining for six strikeouts.
“I honestly wanted these guys to experience a championship because it is one of the coolest things you can do as a team and you will remember forever,” Turk said. “But at the end of the day, these guys came together and they have a bond now that they will never forget.”
The bond was also developed and shared with the community. Turk said everyone was proud to represent the Pioneers again all season.
“Summer ball is for these guys to go out and play and continue to grow and mature as young men and young baseball players,” Turk said. “For strangers to take them into their household, and for a community they don’t know to get behind them and really come together is a special bond. It is done in such a quick amount of time. I don’t think we are here a full three months. They are with each other every single day. They eat together, practice together, play together, and sleep together in the hotel rooms. They are always together and that is one of the things I talk about the most is these are bonds that they make with friends that they will have the rest of their lives.”
Big Sticks (48-20) 102 200 100 — 6 7 4
Pioneers (49-16) 000 002 201 — 5 8 1
WP — Malik Barrington. LP — Landon Odom. S — Cort Dietrich.
HR — Big Sticks (Nathan Sanders). 2B — Big Sticks (Michael Fuhrman, Conner VanCleave). Pioneers (Cole Gambill).