BELVIDERE – Before the umpire could punch out Steven Armoska, David Gottemoller, catcher’s gear and all, was more than a foot off the ground.
The Sterling senior couldn’t help but leap with joy. He had called a dandy of a seventh inning, and classmate Tanner Morse hit every spot as the Golden Warriors beat twin-city rival Rock Falls 5-3 on Saturday afternoon at Belvidere North High School.
In the morning, Sterling (8-7) controlled the hosting Blue Thunder in a 9-1 decision. Brandon Dennis and Bryant Lilly combined to retire the last 16 batters they faced, and the Warriors batted around in a four-run fourth inning.
After a five-game losing skid, the Warriors extended their winning streak to four when Morse notched his third and fourth strikeouts of the afternoon.
He first got leadoff batter Dustin Huycke looking after pounding the outer portion with fastballs. The junior center fielder stayed alive by fouling off two 2-2 pitches before Morse introduced him to Uncle Charlie.
“We were setting him up outside, I was going away-away, and then I bent that [curveball] back in,” Morse said. “It was a great setup by David.”
After getting Rock Falls starter Austin Donoho to pop out to Zach Rehmert at first, Morse punched out Armoska with straight gas.
“I’ve got tons of confidence in Tanner,” Gottemoller said. “I love catching him, and I know it’s going to be there every time, no matter what pitch I call.”
Morse (4-2) struck out four and allowed four hits – two of them doubles by catcher Jacob Mammosser – while walking four. He threw 94 pitches in the complete-game win.
Lilly went a seemingly pedestrian 1-for-3 in both Sterling victories. In what many consider an extraordinary rivalry, he had a less-than-ordinary day. But the junior center fielder came through in the clutch by taking an everyday approach.
With runners at first and second, two outs and a 2-2 count on him in the top of the fifth, Lilly stroked a clean single to plate courtesy runner Brady Siegmund and give Sterling a 4-3 lead.
“I didn’t really think about the situation,” Lilly said. “I just made sure I got the bat on the ball and focused on staying on top of it.”
“He hit three balls hard and only got one hit,” Sterling coach Robbie Minor said. “His approach at the plate is outstanding right now.
“He’s middle-away with everything.” Minor elaborated. “We’ve gotta get more guys on the same page as him.”
The baserunning “heroics” that followed won’t be found in any Tom Emanski video. With Logan Rippy at second base, Donoho made a pickoff move and caught Lilly in no-man’s land.
After spinning away from a tag and drawing four throws, the last one eluded two Rockets and bled into left field. Lilly slid into second safely while Rippy scored.
“That was a nice little spin move he had … didn’t have any of those in football,” Morse jabbed.
The inning was extended on Gottemoller’s two-out grounder that ate up freshman Clay Velazquez at short and plated Frankie Perino.
“Physical errors, I won’t get too upset about. Those happen,” Rock Falls manager Donnie Chappell said. “We tried to overcome the mistakes, and we kind of had it taken away from us.”
He was alluding to Lilly not being called out when his spin took him to the far reaches of the baseline.
“We may not have been very good today, but you hate to see somebody else factor into it,” Chappell said.
All three Sterling runs in the inning were unearned. They earned the other two, both scored by Morse. Rippy smoked a single to left to score him in the first, and Gottemoller mashed a double to the warning track in left to plate his pitcher in the third.
Rock Falls took a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the second. Mammosser led off with a double to right and moved to third on an Eddie Nelson infield hit. After Trace Hippen walked, Quinton Matznick hit a duck-snort RBI single to left, and Velazquez coaxed a six-pitch walk to drive in Nelson. Huycke grounded out to second to bring in Hippen.
Donoho took something of a tough-luck loss, allowing five runs – two earned – over six innings. Both teams had just four hits.
Last year’s rivalry clash was a barnburner, too, with Morse working six innings to get the win in a 4-2 decision.
On Saturday, Chappell tipped his cap to Morse, saying he “made big pitches when he had to.” As for Minor, his former shortstop at Rock Falls?
“I don’t expect anything less from him,” Chappell said. “He’s doing a great job over there, and I was lucky to have him play for me. I’m always proud of him. I don’t like when he beats me. I don’t like it when anybody beats me.
“But I’d rather be beat by him than somebody else.”