(Sioux City) -- The bitter taste of a substate final loss in basketball proved a fine motivator on Tuesday night.
Leyton Nelson’s pitching and a diverse offense led by Trent Kozeal sent Tri-Center to a 5-0 1A substate final win over Kingsley-Pierson, moving the Trojans to their third state tournament since 2016 and sixth in school history.
“Every time is different and every time is special,” Coach Max Kozeal told KMA Sports. “This year, I just feel really happy for the kids. The basketball team got so close. This is for the basketball team, too.”
“It feels amazing,” Nelson said. “Basketball we didn’t get there. It feels great to get back (to state).”
“It’s amazing,” Trent Kozeal added. “We came up short in basketball and didn’t want that feeling again.”
They certainly couldn’t have done it without the masterful performance from the unflappable Nelson on the mound. The senior tossed all seven innings, struck out nine and allowed just four hits to move to 10-0 on the season.
“Last year, I didn’t pitch much,” Nelson said. “I just have that mindset. Coach Kozeal preaches confidence, and tonight was my night.”
“(Leyton) kind of grew up physically in the last year,” Coach Kozeal said. “The thing that separates Leyton is between the ears. Mentally, he’s as good as any pitcher I’ve ever seen.”
That showed itself throughout the evening. In the first, Nelson hit leadoff batter Emerson Pratt and then pushed him to third on a throwing error and balk. Still, Nelson got a pair of strikeouts and a groundout to come out unscathed.
He faced another precarious situation in the fourth. With two in scoring position and just one out, Nelson went to work with another strikeout and a fly out.
Finally, in the seventh, the first two Kingsley-Pierson batters reached on a hit by pitch and a single. He followed with a strikeout and another fly out. The Panthers’ No. 9 hitter Conner Beelner blooped a two-out single to center to load the bases, but Nelson got Pratt to foul out on his 102nd pitch of the night, clinching the state berth.
“Coach Kozeal said they were an aggressive team,” Nelson said. “They wanted to jump some first pitches, so I tried to keep them off balance. Even throw some balls in there, and they chased some tonight.”
While Nelson was doing work, the offense was constantly putting pressure on a trio of Kingsley-Pierson pitchers. By the third inning, the Trojans broke through.
With one out, No. 9 hitter Michael Turner reached on an error, stole second and then moved to third on a wild pitch. Mason Rohatsch, Trent Kozeal and Brett McGee then followed with back-to-back-to-back run-scoring hits — a single, a triple and a single, respectively.
The Trojans rallied for two more in the fifth. Kozeal, who finished a home run shy of the cycle, reached on a bloop double, moved to third on an error and scored on a wild pitch. Brett McGee came in later, working his way around the bases before scoring on a Nelson RBI safety squeeze.
That was more than enough for Nelson and more than enough for the Trojans to exorcise the demons of their substate final loss to Martensdale-St. Marys in basketball.
“I’m so proud of all these guys,” Coach Kozeal said. “Our kids were extremely focused and relaxed because they learned from that experience. I’m just really proud of them.”
Tri-Center, which outscored their four postseason opponents 30-0, will now prepare for the 1A state tournament next Monday against an opponent and at a time to be determined. With many upsets in the lead up to the 1A tournament, it’s anybody’s game at this point.
For Tri-Center, a dominant win over a 2020 state semifinalist should put them squarely on the radar to duplicate the school’s 1987 state championship.
“It says a lot about us,” Trent Kozeal said of the win. “It says we can beat anyone.”
Check out full video interviews with Coach Kozeal, Nelson and Trent Kozeal below.