Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – In a season that began with heavy hearts and was replete in both setbacks and triumphs, the Liberty High baseball team managed to set the standard.
No matter what heights the program reaches in the future, the fifth installment of Lightning varsity baseball will forever own the distinction of being the first in program history to reach the state tournament.
“It is just a testament to the kind of kids they are, the kind of people they are,” Liberty Coach Tom Cronk said after the eighth-seeded Lightning lost to top-seeded Johnston, 6-3, in a Class 4A state quarterfinal game Tuesday at Duane Banks Field. “They really came together at the end. It is not easy, but they came together and when you are together, you have got a chance. Just couldn’t be more proud of the boys and what they have done for our program and our community.”
The loss halted a fantastic postseason charge for Liberty High (21-20), which ended the season with wins in 10 of its last 15 games.
The Lightning won three win-or-go-home postseason contests, highlighted by road conquests against a pair of top-10 teams in Cedar Falls and Pleasant Valley just to reach the state tournament.
It took a battle-tested Johnston bunch that has participated in each of the last seven state tournaments, including a pair of state championships in that span, to ultimately end the Liberty High season.
“It goes to show the type of heart and fight we have,” Liberty High senior pitcher Boyd Skelley said. “The regular season, obviously, is not always going to show what your baseball team exactly looks like and plays like. We were really able to come together the last few games of the season and make history as the first Liberty team to come to Duane (Banks Field). I think we did a really good job of trying to soak it all in and really enjoying the moment. We went up against the best team in the state.”
The March death of Owen Skelley, Boyd’s younger brother and teammate, jolted the Liberty High program to its core.
But Tuesday, Boyd Skelley exemplified the same level of perseverance that allowed the Lightning to respond to tragedy with unparalleled successes.
Boyd’s brief outing as the starting pitcher – three innings, 42 pitches, two hits, two runs (one unearned) with zero walks and four consecutive strikeouts – kept his team in the game.
“I was feeling really good,” Skelley said. “After that second inning when I struck out three in a row, I actually threw up in the dugout because I was just so amped up and it was so hot. But when I came right back out in the third, I was feeling great. It was fun. I had a good time today.”
Skelley departed with the score tied at 2-2, but the Dragons broke through in the bottom of the fourth inning against the Liberty bullpen with three runs, including a pair of two-out singles by Cade Godwin and Jack Emanuel that each drove in a run.
Liberty High responded by loading the bases in both the fifth and seventh innings, but managed to scratch out just one more run the rest of the way.
The Lightning also stranded two base runners in the sixth.
“They made the pitch when it needed to be made,” said Liberty High senior Hayden Vickroy, who scored two runs for the Lightning and will play college baseball at Spoon River College in Illinois. “They moved the ball in and out, they kept us off balance. They are a really good staff.”
Pitcher Carter Woollums improved to 10-0 this season and Tyne Weeden homered in the sixth inning for Johnston (34-4), which will play a 4A state semifinal on Thursday.
Liberty senior Jack Funke – who will join Skelley next season with the Winona State (Minn.) baseball program – reached base three times and scored once, while teammate Mason Gardner tripled home a run.
While the Lightning graduates a special class of a dozen seniors, returning starters like Gardner, Luke Ramsey and Luke Mayer will be ready to lead the way for a Liberty program that will be eager to get back to state and take another step.
“We dealt with a lot back in (March) and had that chip on our shoulder ever since,” Funke said. “I think that helped carry us to state, big time. It just sets the standard for future generations at Liberty.”
Liberty High 010 100 1 – 3 5 0
Johnston 101 301 x – 6 6 0
W–Carter Woollums (10-0) L–Jack Turgasen (6-1) SV–Sam Hesselman (5)
HR – JON: Tyne Weeden (1)