Baseball: A Trip Back in Time
By BRANDON HURLEY
The luck of the Irish may not have played a direct role, but it certainly was a worthy charm.
Infamous Jefferson-Scranton athletics bus driver Pat O’Mera was the proverbial victory cigar, driving around a jubilant Ram baseball team returning to the town square in the summer of 1998.
The joyous occasion was well-deserved - the Rams had just paraded through the season at a record-crushing pace, securing just the second state tourney berth in school history in addition to advancing to the state semifinals.
Today, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the last Jefferson-based baseball team to reach the elusive baseball state tournament.
Though East Greene was the most recent Greene County school to reach state, during the 2009 cinderella season, only two Jefferson teams have ever made state.
Unlike Jefferson’s initial trip to the state tournament 15 years prior, this captivating state journey two decades ago was much less surprising. These Rams were incredibly dominant and broke several school records along the way.
That 1998 semifinal squad was loaded with talent, on the mound, at the plate, in the field and on the base paths. And yes, they also had dazzling pair of superstars. The Rams busted through any prior Ram ceiling, setting a school record for wins (22) and while blasting more than 20 home runs.
To put that in perspective, Jeremy Thompson hit more home runs in a single season than Greene County or Jefferson has hit combined since 2012 (12 home runs in six plus years). The Rams have won 15 games just twice in the last 10 years, with a single-season high of 19 in 2015.
The starting second baseman on that squad, David Morain, remembers that summer well. A number of factors made that team special, outside of the talent, of course. Everything came together that magical summer.
“We all had different backgrounds, had different family situations, were from different social cliques in high school. Some were musicians and sung in choir, some spent most of their days in the industrial tech wing of the school,” Morain said. “Some didn’t really do anything else. We had kids that never got in trouble and others that were always in detention or worse.
But baseball leveled everything out. On the ball diamond, we were just a bunch of dirt balls playing as hard as we could and having a hell of a lot of fun doing it.”
Morain and crew were ready to show the state they were for real as the season began.
Building toward a deep run
It wasn’t a cake walk to state for J-S, though. The Rams were while facing some of the state’s top programs along the way. They knocked off a pesky Carroll squad in the district opener, upset a highly-ranked Kuemper Catholic team and defeated traditionally strong Harlan squad in the substate final.
Jeremy Thompson’s school record 13 home runs and Kelly Lane’s nine bombs placed the J-S batting duo among the state’s all-time elite. In fact, each slugger put together a state-record five game homer streak, which is still the seventh-longest steak in the nation.
Despite holding a handful of school records, Thompson said he never put too much attention on the long ball.
“My philosophy is not to try and think of hitting home runs,” he said in the Jefferson Herald back in 1998. “That’s when I get in trouble, when I think of hitting home runs.”
The kicker was, both Lane and Thompson could deal on the mound, too, combining for 19 wins and just four losses in 1998, including Lane’s sparkling record of 13-0 and a 1.60 ERA. His double-digit triumphs were the most in the state, across all classes that year. Lane was a four-time all-conference pitcher, and even engineered a complete game victory over Waukon in the state quarterfinals.
“I’ll never gorget this one, it’s the biggest win of my life,” Lane said following the game.
Lane compiled a 28-10 career record (second most wins in school history) to go with a 2.32 ERA, striking out 249 batters in 251 innings. He tallied 114 career RBI and 19 home runs to go with a .375 average. His older brother Mark, holds the Jefferson school record for wins with 33.
Lane and Thompson were so dominant on the bump that former Herald sports editor Doug Rieder coined the witty phrase “Thompson and Lane and pray for rain,” toying with Jefferson-Scranton’s top-heavy rotation.
Morain, now a lawyer in Jefferson, remembers vividly how important Lane and Thompson were to the magical run. He’s quick to point out there really hasn’t been a duo who’s been able to match their success since.
“I don’t know if any team in school history had the kind of 1-2 punch we had on the mound in Jeremy Thompson and Kelly Lane,” Morain said. He’s with the Hoyt and Morain Law Firm in Jefferson now. “As long as one of those guys was pitching, we had a shot against anyone,” Morain added, “And it didn’t matter how big the school was or if the team was ranked.”
To have a dynamic duo as talented as those two was a tremendous blessing, former Jefferson Scranton coach Jim Henrich said.
“It’s extremely important in high school to have guys that can hit and pitch,” Henrich said, who is now the principal at Keota High school. “I could put them almost anywhere. Thompson put in a lot of work, a lot of work off the tee,” Henrich said. “He was a three year starter.”
Lane was a spectacular athlete in his own right, and planted himself as the team’s ace before the summer even began.
“He hardly walked anybody,” Henrich said. “I remember the Raccoon River Conference was pretty good at that time and Kelly came to me and told me that I could pitch him whenever he was ready. Even if it was twice a week, he wanted the ball. Once we did that, we really started to take off.”
Lane and Thompson both earned first team all-state honors, the first such accomplishment for a Jefferson-Scranton duo in the same year.
Thompson batted a staggering .422 in 1998 and wrapped up his high school career with 23 home runs (a school record) and a .392 career average. He was 17-12 as a pitcher with a career 1.97 ERA.
Something special was definitely brewing.
Embarking on a magical story
The postseason pairings sent Jefferson-Scranton west to face a pair of rivals.
The Rams evaded Carroll 4-2 in the opening round, bouncing back from an early inning deficit then upset second-ranked Kuemper Catholic, 8-5 in eight innings. The cards were stacked against J-S, but they had to keep the faith and grind, Henrich said. They fell behind 5-1 after the first two innings, but regained composure to hold the Knights scoreless for the final six innings.
“Nobody thought we’d beat Kuemper,” the coach said. “I remember we had made three or four errors. I told them in the dugout that we couldn’t play any worse. So let’s go out and win these next few innings.
It was crazy.”
That Kuemper victory has stuck with Morain. It was as intense a playoff game as he could remember. The players left it all out on the field. They’d been working toward the state tournament nearly their entire lives.
“Somehow we pulled it out, but it wasn’t an easy game,” Morain said. “Dustin Briggs was our catcher, and I remember him selling out getting a foul ball against the fence.
It tore up his arm pretty bad but he made the play.”
The Ram offense, per usual, was spectacular as well, with Thompson connecting on the most important play of the night with the bases loaded and two outs, knocking in the go ahead runs with a momentum-shifting double. It was a moon shot that somehow didn’t clear the fence, Morain recalls.
“Jeremy had a huge hit that probably would have been a home run in about any other park we played in, but Carroll’s field is very deep in center field,” Morain said. “That broke the game open. Probably the biggest hit we had all year. We all went nuts.”
Thompson kept his hot streak going, tossing a complete game gem in the substate final against Harlan, allowing just three hits while striking out 12 in the 4-2 win. The senior retired the final 10 batters, including strikeouts of five of the last six.
“It was the game of my life, pitching wise. Once I settled down, everything was working and I had my confidence. I think that helped,” Thompson said in the Jefferson Herald. “It means so much (to make it to state). I’ve had a good career and am real happy with it, but this tops it off.”
The trip to state was a bit of redemption of sorts, as the Rams fell a game short the year prior, losing to West Marshall. Adam Winger, who made the final out that year, knocked in the go-ahead run with two outs in the sixth inning against Harlan a year later, setting off a wild celebration, while simultaneously providing a sense of relief.
“When the count was oh-and-two, I was thinking about last year when I made the last out and I knew I wanted to come through,” he said following the game in the Herald. “I was happy to get the hit that ended up winning the game for us.”
On to state
Lane was dialed in during the state quarterfinal win, with the hopes and dreams of an entire county on his back. And he didn’t disappoint, tossing a complete game, allowing just a single run in Jefferson-Scranton’s 2-1 win over Waukon.
His 23rd home run was never more important, as a solo rocket tied the state semifinal game at two in the third inning, a contest the Rams eventually lost, 3-2 to hated rival, Perry.
The semifinal tilt with Perry was intense, with the Bluejays essentially shutting down the potent Ram offense. Jefferson-Scranton’s long-time rival won 3-2 thanks to a bases loaded, two-out single in the fifth inning. Perry held Jefferson-Scranton to just one base runner the final four innings, as the Ram bats fell silent.
With the game at the historic and cozy Merchants Park in Carroll, the stands were packed.
“That was our rival, it was really loud,” Henrich said.
The loss was tough to swallow, especially since the Rams had their chances. Morain puts some of the loss squarely on his shoulders, even to this day. He watched two strikes glide on past him with the bases loaded, per coach’s orders. Henrich was hoping to rattle the newly entered pitcher by forcing him to throw strikes. The plan immediately back fired, as Morain eventually went down swinging.
“(That game) will never leave me,” the former Ram said. “I remember striking out with the bases loaded.
I can still see those first two pitches and I wish I could go back and take a cut. Instead I struck out on a curveball.”
In the end, confidence was the calling card of that historic squad.
“Everyone on that team was competitive,” Henrich said. “They got a long well. Everyone knew their role and they were tough as nails kids.”
In addition to the offensive firepower, it was in the field where the Rams really shined, Henrich remembers.
“They were all great defensively,” the coach said. “Nate Heupert was great in center field.” And certainly so, you don’t get two pitchers with a combined 25 starts both with ERAs under 2.00 with subpar defense.
The Rams trotted out a staggering six all-conference players that year, in addition to Lane and Thompson, Nate Heupert and freshman Reed Kinne were honored while Josh Thompson, Jeremy’s sophomore brother who played left field and catcher Dustin Briggs were honorable mentions. The Rams finished third in the RRC behind DC-G and Perry, who beat J-S all three times. Heupert, Lane and Thompson were all first team members.
There’s one particular lesser-known player who sticks out in Henrich’s mind. Though he may not have been one of the bright stars or seen much playing time, then senior Brad Beebe was a true leader, in everything he did. He’s a guy Henrich calls to when teaching the next generation.
“He was a senior and he was the best teammate,” the former coach said. “He never complained, and he did his job. You don’t get a lot of kids like that.”
((SubHEAD)) A coaching legend
Henrich’s last coaching stint was with Webster City in 2004, following a stop at Southeast Valley. He led Spalding Catholic to a state title in 1989. Henrich was at peace while coaching baseball.
“More than any other sport, if you teach the fundamentals you can make a good athlete out of a decent athlete,” he said. “We always talked about the race to 21 outs. That was the best part of it, seeing them become great. And you better like (baseball), because you’re going to spend all summer with those guys.”
The long-time coach liked to push the envelope, playing small ball, searching for an edge at every turn. The go-ahed run in the substate final win over Harlan was set up by a lead-off sixth inning bunt by Heupert. Henrich noticed the third baseman was playing out of position, and knew Heupert’s speed. So he laid down the signal and Heupert converted. Heupert was quoted recalling the pitcher’s height and figuring he had no chance throwing him out.
“With Nate’s speed, it made sense to bunt,” Henrich said. “We liked to bunt. Our guys had a lot of speed.”
It was a call back to a marathon barn-burner early in the ’98 season. The Rams and the North Polk Comets, coached by the legendary Dave Middleton (owner of 10 state trips and a title), squared off in a nine-inning slug fest, with J-S prevailing, 15-14. Henrich elected to secure the winning run with a suicide squeeze bunt with two outs and the basses loaded.
“Middleton asked me, ‘who squeezes with two outs?’ Henrich remembers. “And I said ‘I was tired and just wanted to get our of there.’”
It’s a perfect way to sum up the competitiveness and spirit of that ’98 squad. They took chances, but in the end, played for the love of the game.