The Iowa state baseball tournament serves as a perfect capstone to the end of the prep sports summer and the start of a new sporting school year. After a full summer season, the tournament determines the best team in the state and, like all state tournaments, is an official badge of accomplishment for all who reach it's hallowed rounds.
In 2013, the Sioux City (Ia.) Bishop Heelan High competed at the state tournament despite losing in the regional finals. Nearly a month later, the story of precisely how that occurred now lingers as a particularly bitter pill that spelled the end of the road for a surging Le Mars (Ia.) High squad.
"I didn't know what to say," Heelan coach Andy Osborne told the Des Moines Register. "It was really tough to take [the banner]."
As reported by the Register and a handful of other outlets, Le Mars rallied to knock off Heelan by a score of 8-5 in 11 innings, only to have that victory rescinded thanks to a violation of a mandatory pitching rest rule. The violation occurred when Le Mars coach Trent Eckstaine inserted pitcher Parker Rolfes in the sixth inning of the decisive Class 3-A substate final between the two squads. Rolfes responded by pitching almost flawlessly, eventually paving the way for a state tourney-bound celebratory dog pile with his Le Mars teammates.
Yet, three innings into Rolfes' relief appearance a Heelan parent was notified by a parent of the team Rolfes had helped eliminate with a terrific nine-inning outing just two days earlier. State regulations hold that Rolfes had to rest for a full two days of competition before he was eligible to return to the pitching mound because he had pitched nine full innings against his prior opponent. In this case, he came back 24 hours too early.
The Heelan parent approached Heelan coach Andy Osborne with this information during the ninth inning and the Sioux City coach immediately sent one of his own parents to inform his school's athletic director of the potential violation. The AD then reached the Iowa High School Activities Association baseball representative about the prospective violation and asked what to do.
The state ruled that the use of Rolfes was a significant enough violation that it would deem Le Mars' victory a forfeit, leading to a profoundly awkward postgame ceremony in which Eckstaine had to walk across the diamond and hand a banner celebrating his team's state qualification to Osborne as the Heelan players looked on sheepishly.
"All of this is kind of going on. I’m in the thick of things coaching," Osborne told the Register. "It was the furthest thing from my mind, to be perfectly honest.
"I really didn’t anticipate a forfeiture. Having never been through anything like that, I didn’t know what exactly was up."
The Register goes into much more detail about the precedent that led to the forfeiture. Needless to say, that did little to salve the wounds of an upstart Iowa team which had just celebrated bottling magic to beat one of the state's top team and was on its way to the state tournament. Heelan didn't win the title -- you can see highlights from their state quarterfinal matchup above -- but they did end up there of no thanks to their own accomplishments.
"It breaks my heart for the kids that they played so well and it had to end like that," Eckstaine said. "I told the kids, 'If this is the worst thing that ever happens in your life, consider yourself lucky.' "