COLUMBIA — During the regular season, the Rock Bridge High School baseball team didn't play like a state semifinalist. The Bruins finished just 17-12 with a young squad featuring many juniors and even sophomores.
But for the first time in 34 years, Rock Bridge has found itself two wins away from a state championship. The team will play Blue Springs South High School at 4 p.m. Thursday at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O'Fallon.
For the Bruins, getting to this point has required significant growth. Coach Justin Towe said one of the team's biggest challenges has been simply adjusting to the speed of varsity baseball.
Junior standout Logan Twehous agreed.
"Early in the season we struggled to punch back when being punched first," said Twehous, who will start on the mound for Rock Bridge on Thursday.
The Bruins certainly took the first punch in the Class 5 District 9 semifinal game against Helias Catholic on May 19.
"It was a team that we'd run-ruled earlier in the season so we kinda just thought we just could show up and beat them and they hung up eight runs in the first inning," Twehous said.
But when the Bruins found themselves facing elimination, they swung back, scoring nine runs in one inning and ultimately winning 12-11. That win gave the Bruins confidence in their ability to respond to adversity, which has bolstered their playoff run.
Two days after the Helias miracle, Twehous and the Bruins shut out Jefferson City High School for the district title. Rock Bridge then rolled past Rolla High School 9-1 in their sectional game May 27 and eked out a 5-4 quarterfinal victory against Nixa, again on the strength of Twehous' arm.
"Early in the season when we got down, it was just 'Oh jeez we're losing again.' Now it feels like 'We've been here before; we can come back,'" Twehous said.
Team captain and senior catcher Hunter Blume attributed part of the team's growth to his fellow seniors' leadership. He also credits the younger players evolution over the course of the season.
"It's been hard; everybody who's been starting is very young. All of our seniors were injured or not in the starting lineup," Blume said. "It's taken some adjusting by us to get everybody in line so that everybody's ready to play and everybody's there to do their job."
At practice Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the Class 5A state semifinal game, the young Bruins didn't appear fazed by the gravity of their impending showdown with Blue Springs South (23-11). Rock Bridge (22-12) will look to draw on its experience against tough teams during the regular season.
Towe said that his team's schedule, which included two games against Blue Springs South, defending class 5A state champion Francis Howell High School and other top competition in and out of the state, hadn't done its record any favors.
"We didn't dodge anybody," Towe said
The Bruins split their two games against the Jaguars during the regular season, losing 10-1 on April 9 before shutting them out 3-0 on May 10.
The winner of Thursday's all-important rubber match will advance to the state championship game to play the winner of Vianney (Kirkwood) and defending Class 5A state champion Francis Howell. The title game is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday.