PAPILLION -- They took turns signing the baseball, the one hit to Nicholas Bohn, who stepped on third base for the final out of the Class B final.
Normally, a state championship game ball might go to the coach. Many of them are displayed at the schools.
But this one is going to Carrie Essink.
Inspired by a parent’s long fight with a rare form of stomach cancer, No. 2 Bennington fought off No. 5 Hastings 4-3 in nine innings Thursday at Werner Park to capture the school’s first state baseball championship.
Bohn hit a two-run chopper up the middle in the top of the ninth to break a 2-2 tie. Fittingly, he recorded the final out on a grounder to third.
“This is just a group of brothers,” said junior Colton Smith, who pitched 6 2/3 dominating innings, striking out 12. “We’re just a big family. It’s just so exciting that we could do this for each other, we could do this for the city … and we could do this, most important, for Carrie Essink.”
Carrie is the mother of Bennington’s junior catcher Kyler Essink. She was recently in the hospital for more than a week, so she couldn’t attend the Badgers’ district games.
“She watched via livestreaming and that was her motivation,” Bennington coach Scott Heese said. “She ate that up. She lives for baseball and she loves watching these guys play and obviously her son is a huge part of our team’s success.”
After punching their state ticket, the players wanted to do something to honor Carrie. They created purple bracelets with her name on them. The team also donned purple wristbands and purple shoelaces.
During Thursday’s state final against Hastings, the Bennington student body wore purple shirts.
“She’s so strong and I love her so much,” said Kyler Essink, a team captain. “She’s my biggest supporter. The team really got behind her and that’s why we were playing so well. They wanted to do well for her.”
Bennington (20-5) went 5-0 in the Class B state tournament, winning in a variety of ways -- pitchers’ duels, a 10-run win, a walk-off and a drama-filled extra-inning contest against Hastings for the crown.
Smith, a Creighton recruit, followed Saturday’s 12-strikeout shutout against Concordia/Brownell-Talbot/Omaha Christian with another dazzling performance. He allowed only two hits, including a leadoff homer to Hastings’ Jacob Shroeder in the bottom of the first inning, that sneaked around the foul pole.
Smith retired the next 12 batters.
“That’s the first batter of the game and I got a whole game left, so I knew I couldn’t get stumbled over that, I had to move on, I had to learn from what I did,” Smith said. “I had to focus on the next batter and go from there.”
Junior Michael Boeve kept the Tigers (21-8) in the game, settling in nicely over the middle innings. That allowed Hastings to break through in the sixth and tie the game. Sam Wibbels hit a bloop single and a mishandle by the outfielder allowed a run to score.
Bennington turned the game in its favor in the ninth with runners on second and third. Bohn said he was looking for a fastball and he got one.
"I usually look for a good fastball and I like to attack early," he said.
Junior Wyatt Knutson-Smith, who entered in the seventh after Smith hit the 110-pitch limit, earned the win.
Heese started the Bennington high school baseball program 10 years ago. The team reached state in 2014, but the Badgers didn't win their first state tournament game until Saturday. Four more wins followed.
"When we came back this year, we wanted to get our money’s worth," Heese said. "We got that first victory, tasted it, and just kept rolling. Kids have been hitting extremely well, they’ve been seeing the ball and our pitchers have done an outstanding job."
Bennington went 11-10 in 2018, 10-11 in 2017, 9-12 in 2016 and 12-10 in 2015.
Heese said the juniors and seniors wanted to change that. They wanted to be better than average. So they put more work into morning sessions in the offseason and the team did community work together, which included volunteering at the Night to Shine event for special-needs kids.
Hesse said all of that translated to the field.
After receiving the state championship trophy Thursday, the Badgers posed for team photos. They made sure to get one more person in before taking a few more snaps with the phones. They waited for Carrie, their tournament inspiration, to join them.
"It means a lot seeing her out there, seeing her out in the stands," Kyler Essink said. "That was awesome, It was so cool."