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After streaking into the 6A state semifinals, 29th-ranked Hilhi is eliminated by Sheldon

EUGENE — The Hillsboro baseball team’s beautiful, scintillating run through the Class 6A state playoffs came to an end Tuesday afternoon — but not without a fight first.

Playing at reigning state champion Sheldon with a spot in Saturday’s championship game on the line, the Spartans struck first. But ultimately, the Irish put more plays together when they needed to and were just a little bit better in a 3-1 victory.by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro senior Chase Kaplan is congratulated by teammate Dylan Frederick (5) after Kaplan scored a run last Wednesday in the Spartans' 5-4 state playoff win over Westview.

Hilhi, an improbable semifinalist as the No. 29 seed, wrapped up the spring with its deepest postseason run since 1993 and finished at 14-15.

No. 8 Sheldon (23-8) will face No. 2 North Medford — a 4-0 winner against Tualatin on Tuesday — at 10 a.m. Saturday at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer with a chance at history at stake.

“As we always say, it’s not necessarily how you start but how you finish,” Hilhi coach Matt Bailie said. “These guys are going to be hanging their heads a little bit, but when they look back on it five years down the road, they’re going to have some things to talk about.”

Bailie’s voice caught a bit as he said that, but he was right in that while the season ended Tuesday for his team, it ended well, as the Spartans certainly played to win. Ready from the start, the visitors put a run on the board before the game was more than minutes old.

Sheldon starter Brandon Brancato got the affair going by hitting plucky Hilhi leadoff man Damon Peters to put him aboard. After Josh McCullough moved him over with a sacrifice bunt, Austin Lutheran-Burt delivered, staking Hilhi to a 1-0 lead with an RBI single.

“I think everyone just wanted this more than anything,” Lutheran-Burt said. “It meant more than anything to our whole school, to anyone that was there to root for us.”

Hilhi’s star southpaw Chase Kaplan, pitching his fourth game of the postseason as well as his second in five days, kept the shutout going through three innings. But he tired as the game went on, he said, and he lost some velocity on his pitches.

The trouble came in the fourth. With one on and one out, Levi Rotherham sent an RBI single into left field to score Mitchell Herbert from second.

After Herbert took second base during Josh Baxter’s at-bat, the teammates traded places on Baxter’s RBI double to center, putting the Irish out front.

After the Spartans stranded runners at second and third in the top of the fifth, Sheldon tacked on another run with two outs in the bottom half. David Bellamy reached first on a bunt and then motored all the way to third on a pickoff attempt gone awry. Herbert followed with a single to left that put the Irish up 3-1.by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Hillsboro junior Isaac Mitzel slides into third base during Tuesday's 3-1 loss to Sheldon in the semifinals of the Class 6A baseball state playoffs.

“We thought coming in they were probably the best-hitting team that we’ve faced from the top down,” Bailie said. “They were able to get a couple balls to fall there and score their runs.

“Chase did a heck of a job on three days’ rest and battled with what he had today. That’s all we can ask these kids to do.”

After being retired in order by Brancato in the sixth, the Spartans had hope in the seventh when pinch hitter Isaac Mitzel led off by beating out a throw to first for an infield single and Peters also singled.

Those were two of the four hits that Brancato — who, like Kaplan, also pitched in the quarterfinal round — gave up all game, but they got him yanked quickly for reliever Justin Herbert.

With Mitzel on third and Peters on second, Hilhi attempted a suicide squeeze, but McCullough could not make contact and Mitzel was tagged out near home plate by Irish catcher Sam Olsson. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Hillsboro senior Chase Kaplan (12) gets a hug from a teammate after Tuesday's playoff loss to Sheldon.

Then, with a strikeout and a groundout to first, Sheldon closed the door on the Spartans’ chance at playing for a state title for the first time since 1993, years before the players on the current squad were born.

This playoff run was years in the making from a program standpoint, but also for this particular group of players, a sizeable number of whom have played together since they were schoolboys at Groner Elementary.

“It’s not just teammates, it’s brothers,” Kaplan noted. “We all had that camaraderie that I don’t think any other team did, and I think that’s what boosted us those four games.

“That’s where the run came from, because we knew we had each other’s backs.”

As for Sheldon, perhaps the Spartans ran into a team of destiny. The Irish graduated 13 seniors a year ago, and yet they will play for a second consecutive title, a rare opportunity in Oregon prep large-school baseball.

The last program to go win consecutive state titles was Madison — all the way back in 1969 and 1970, when the state’s largest classification was AAA. In fact, the Senators, who also lost to Corvallis in the 1971 final, are the last group to even attempt to defend a title in the championship contest.

Among others, The Dalles (1972 and 1973) Tigard (1987 and 1988) and Newberg (2002 and 2003) both made consecutive championship game appearances, but they each lost the first and won the second.

In a measure of class and grace in defeat, Lutheran-Burt said he knows who he is pulling for Saturday.

“I give it up to Sheldon,” he said. “I’m rooting for them now. They beat us, and I have total respect for them.”

And yes, another Irish title would be remarkable.

But what the Spartans did — and what a glorious run it was — was pretty remarkable, too.

“It’s a tough loss, but it’s a best end of the season I’ve ever encountered,” Kaplan said. “These guys are more than teammates, so to do that with them, it feels good.”

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