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Fish fall one game short

River Falls Fighting Fish pitcher Luke Meier delivers a pitch to the plate in the sixth inning of the Fish's 4-3 loss to the Haugen Knights in the Sweet 16 round of the Wisconsin Baseball Association playoffs Sunday at Bob Young Field in Ellsworth. River Falls advanced to the Sweet 16 with an 11-9, 10-inning victory over the Tilden Tigers Saturday. Bob Burrows photo

The River Falls Fighting Fish's 2009 season lasted one game longer than 2008, but one game short of earning a berth in the Wisconsin Baseball Association State Championship Tournament this weekend in Haugen.

After defeating the Tilden Tigers, 11-9 in 10 innings on a sweltering Saturday afternoon at Bob Young Field in Ellsworth, the Fish returned to Ellsworth Sunday only to come out on the short end of a 4-3 decision to the top-seeded Haugen Knights.

"No season ever ends the way you want it unless you're the WBA champion, but we're looking back at this one already as a big success," Fish player-manager Josh Eidem said about the team's 20-13 record, St. Croix Valley Baseball League North Division championship and berth in the WBA Sweet 16. "We're of course disappointed to miss out on the WBA finals, but it was still a major accomplishment to be one of the final 16 teams playing in the WBA on Sunday."

Saturday's slugfest against Tilden featured four home runs -- two by each team -- including a two-run blast by Fish 40 year-old left fielder Scott Warrington in the top of the 10th that provided the margin of victory.

Ryan Gilbertson, the Fish's third pitcher of the day, worked out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the inning by striking out the final two batters to preserve the victory.

Warrington, a 23-year veteran of town ball who has hinted about hanging up his spikes at the end of the season, finished with four hits, four RBI and two runs scored to lead River Falls at the plate.

Gilbertson also had three hits, including a solo home run in the top of the eighth that gave River Falls a 9-7 lead, while driving in three and scoring three. Brian Giebel added four hits and a pair of RBI as the Fish finished with 20 hits on the day compared to 13 for Tilden.

Sunday against Haugen, the Knights scored all four of their runs in the second inning, two aided by a nasty, bad-hop single that almost took Fish third baseman Nathan Brom's head off at third. The Fish scored single runs in the first, fifth and eighth innings, but the game ended with the tying run in scoring position in the top of the ninth when Fish pinch-hitter Trevor Gutting was called out on strikes on a pitch that looked low and outside to the contingent of the vocal River Falls fans on hand.

"Had we played really poorly Sunday, we'd be more disappointed, but we feel like we played well against Haugen and they just played better that day," Eidem said. "They made two diving catches in the outfield, their shortstop made several plays in the hole, and Ryan (Gilbertson) just missed what would have been a game-changing home run by about two feet. Luke Meier threw the ball well, we made big plays when we had to, but the bounces just didn't go our way."

Meier worked the first six innings and allowed four earned runs on eight hits with two walks and no strikeouts. Morgan pitched two scoreless innings of relief and helped himself in the field by snaring a hard shot up the middle with the bases loaded that started an inning-ending home-to-first double play to get out of the eighth.

Brom and Giebel each had two hits for River Falls while Gilbertson had an RBI single and Clint Kempf had an RBI fielder's choice.

Eidem said he and his teammates were grateful to the Fighting Fish fans who cheered on the team all season.

"They were incredible," he said. "I feel like we're building something great here in River Falls, something people can get behind, something more that can make them feel good about an already great town. Ever person that's come out to a game and yelled 'Go Fish!' or chided the Hot Dog Batter, even just one time, we as players consider them part of the family."

He said he's also grateful to his teammates.

"There were plenty of times throughout this season where we stopped to take a breath and said to each other, 'Isn't this fun?' I know personally I haven't played ball with a better group of guys, 20 guys, up and down the roster, and had more fun since high school, if that. We're really looking forward to everyone coming back next summer, and maybe making a couple of key additions, and giving the WBA playoffs another run for the money.