The North Polk baseball team didn’t hit its desired win total in 2016, but the Comets still found success after moving up from Class 2A to 3A.
North Polk went 15-15 overall and tied with Roland-Story for third behind Saydel and Gilbert in the Heart of Iowa Conference with a strong 10-6 record.
In many ways, North Polk was a better team that last year’s 18-17 squad that reached the 2A substate round. This year’s team improved in batting average and earned-run average over the 2015 squad.
But the Comets struggled at times in close games this summer — losing four games by one run and three in extra innings.
“We lost five games in late innings,” Hall of Fame North Polk head coach Dave Middleton said. “We really needed to finish those games. Three of those occurred when we had two outs versus our opponent in the seventh inning. Essentially we were one pitch away in all three games. Picking those games up as wins not only helps your record, but the guys would have gained some confidence from them as well.”
The Comets opened the season with wins over Perry and Nevada and then they suffered losses to Saydel, Prairie City-Monroe and Urbandale. North Polk followed up the short losing streak with its best stretch of the season by winning nine of its next 12 games.
From June 6-8, North Polk defeated Greene County, East Marshall and South Hamilton. After losing at Norwalk, the Comets pounded Collins-Maxwell-Baxter, fell to Gilbert by a 2-1 score, rolled past Nevada and came up short at Marshalltown.
From June 18-21, North Polk won four in a row.
The Comets avenged their loss to Norwalk and defeated Iowa Falls-Alden on June 18. Two days later, they completed a sweep of eventual state qualifier CMB with a 2-1 win over the Raiders, then on June 21 avenged their earlier setback to PCM with an 8-6 victory.
But the momentum swung in the wrong direction for North Polk from June 22-29 as the Comets dropped six in a row. North Polk fell to Saydel, Ames, Johnston, Greene County, Ballard and Gilbert during that stretch.
In their final games before the July 4 holiday, the Comets broke out of their funk by sweeping top-10 2A power Roland-Story in a doubleheader at home by scores of 7-2 and 1-0. That was the start of a strong finish to the regular season as North Polk ran its win streak to four by taking down South Hamilton and Dallas Center-Grimes before falling to eventual 3A state runner-up Carlisle in nine innings in the final game before postseason play.
North Polk faced Bondurant-Farrar in the 3A district semifinals to begin postseason play. The Comets were engaged in a scoreless tie with the Bluejays through four innings, but everything fell apart in the fifth as they suffered a 10-0 loss to end the season.
“Overall it was a good year, although most of the boys will tell you they thought we’d win more games,” Middleton said. “Sometimes that is just the way it is. That is why what you learn and apply to next year is really important.”
As a team North Polk hit .270 with a .350 on-base average and .320 slugging average. The Comets scored 128 runs and had 26 doubles, five triples, one home run and 65 steals in 78 attempts.
“(Our) weakness would be our team hitting,” Middleton said. “Keeping in mind our overall average wasn’t terrible, but in order to be more competitive, your team needs to hit over .300. This obviously helps score more runs.”
North Polk turned in a .933 fielding average with 593 putouts and 193 assists against 56 errors in 842 chances.
On the mound the Comets gave up 142 runs with a 3.63 ERA in 198 ⅔ innings. Opposing teams only hit .197 against the Comet pitchers and they totaled 171 strikeouts against 121 walks.
Freshman Colten Parkins and sophomore Colby Cupp were the top pitchers for North Polk this season. Each individual earned all-HOIC recognition.
Parkins went 3-2 with a strong 1.66 ERA and 59 strikeouts against only 22 walks in 50 ⅔ innings. Opposing teams only hit .136 off him.
Cupp was 4-1 with a 3.72 ERA, 43 strikeouts and 26 walks in 37 ⅔ innings. Cupp held the opposition to a .207 batting average.
Junior Ben Rupe, senior Brett Haun, sophomore Jake Johnson, junior Matthew Antle and seniors Garrett Houge and Max Karpinski all threw double-digit innings for North Polk.
Rupe was 3-0 with a 2.47 ERA, 25 strikeouts, only eight walks and a .196 opponent batting average in 22 ⅔ innings. Haun went 1-4 with a 4.67 ERA, 13 strikeouts and 14 walks in 21 innings.
Johnson held teams to a .126 average and he was 2-1 with a 2.41 ERA, 11 strikeouts and 10 walks in 20 ⅓ innings. Antle had a 1-2 record with a .440 ERA and .222 opponent batting average in 14 ⅓ innings.
Houge had a 4.31 ERA in 13 innings and Karpinske was 1-1 in 10 ⅔ innings. Senior Matt Cox also threw 6 ⅔ innings and juniors Dawson Deitch and Ryan Spaulding also saw limited time on the mound.
Cupp and Haun were the catalysts for North Polk on offense.
Cupp hit .446 with a .550 OBA and .447 slugging average. He hit two doubles, scored 10 runs and drove in nine.
In the field, Cupp recorded 20 assists and 17 putouts.
Haun hit .364 with a .406 OBA, .434 slugging average, four doubles, one home run, six steals, 21 runs and 12 RBI. At shortstop and on the mound, he produced 69 assists and 37 putouts.
Rupe also had a productive season at the plate.
Rupe hit .329 with a .407 OBA, .500 slugging average, five doubles, four triples, 12 steals, 15 runs and 14 RBI. On the mound and in the outfield he had 35 putouts, seven assists and only one error.
Senior first baseman Nate Johnson hit .286 with a .397 OBA, one double and seven RBI. He also made 166 putouts and only three errors on the season.
Senior second baseman Luke Leopold hit .276 with six doubles, 14 runs, 16 RBI and six steals. He made 29 putouts and 25 assists in the field.
Cox hit .267 with three doubles, one triple, a team-high 21 steals, 18 runs and seven RBI. In the outfield he made 35 putouts, two assists and just one error.
Karpinske hit .260 with two doubles, 10 runs, five steals and 12 RBI. In the outfield and on the mound he combined for 40 putouts, three assists and only two errors.
Houge hit .194 with a .308 OBA, one double, seven runs and seven RBI. At third base, he recorded 30 assists and 15 putouts.
Antle hit .159 with two doubles and 12 RBI. At catcher and on the mound Antle finished with 148 putouts, nine assists and just three errors and he also threw out three base runners.
Sophomore Mason Russell also saw time behind the plate. He threw out two runners and had 35 putouts and two assists against just one error.
Deitch scored one run and drove in two in 21 at-bats and junior pinch runner Anthony Capaldo stole seven bases and scored 10 runs for the Comets.
Next season North Polk must replace a valuable group in Haun, Cox, Leopold, Karpinske, Nate Johnson and Houge.
“Our seniors were really good about leading and helping create a good culture,” Middleton said. “Many of them never missed an off-season workout. I know all of them are disappointed in how the season ended and that just reflects on how much they cared. They are good bunch of guys and I know we will miss them.”
But with their top pitchers returning, the Comets are set to improve in 2017.
“Next year we have around 130 (innings pitched) returning,” Middleton said. “That experience should help; however, we’re going to take a close look at how each one of those pitchers can improve individually. Our guys this year did a nice job of doing what they could to get better in the offseason. Hopefully, that will continue to be our mindset. With six seniors on this year’s club, it leaves several positions up for grabs next year. If someone would like to fill one of those spots, they’re going to have to prove that they are better than everyone else. That typically means they are going to have to work really hard.”