STEELE, N.D. — As members of the Valley City Babe Ruth baseball team walked off the field following a 1-0 season-ending loss to Oakes Tuesday in the District 6 championship, the players' faces seemed to match the gray skies that loomed over the field during the game.
There was a bit of sadness and a hint of frustration after Valley City lost by the slimmest margin possible to a team it had pushed to the limit numerous times this summer.
"It was a heck of a season we put on," said Dalton Ondracek, who pitched a two-hit complete game to end the year. "We kept fighting and fighting and it comes up so short. It's just kind of a sad thing.
"You can see the emotion on the players' faces. It's tough."
Valley City out hit Oakes 5-2. Ondracek's pitching was quick — less than 80 pitches in six innings — and kept hitters at bay, even without a strikeout.
In the end, it was a game that came down to a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the third inning that scored the game's only run.
"The guys played their hearts out and it showed," Valley City coach Lance Lukes said. "We were right there with them. It was just one timely hit and it's a different game for us."
The timely hit was an issue that Valley City struggled with all game.
In both of the first two innings, the team had a runner on second with nobody out. Similarly, the runner got past second in either situation.
In the fifth, Ondracek made it to third with one out, but couldn't score. Jordan Magnuson was stranded at third in the sixth. Ondracek then got back to second with one out in the seventh, made it to third on a groundout, but couldn't get the final 90 feet to home plate before Nate Rodriguez had a called strike three to end the game.
"It kind of sucks at the end of the game when you're 90 feet away from possibly tying and possibly winning the game," Ondracek said. "It was tough but we can hopefully learn from this and come back next season."
Ondracek especially was motivated entering the game, which was his first since an injury kept him off the field for the team's second game Sunday and both games Monday, in which Valley City upset Steele and LaMoure.
"I just felt bad that the last few games I wasn't there and they pulled them out, so I had to do something for my team on the mound and that made me push it," Ondracek said.
He pitched well, but had a slight hiccup in the third inning, which was when the one run of the game scored.
He started the inning with a walk to Brady Ptacek, who advanced to second on a walk to Ethan Zetocha. Caleb Sell then hit a grounder to the mound, which Ondracek fielded cleanly, but then dropped as he attempted a throw to third.
Oakes then hit two straight fly balls to center field, the second of which was deep enough to score the winning run.
Afterwards, he allowed only one more runner to reach base, and the only two hits Oakes had off him were in the first and second innings.
"I can't ask for more (of him)" Lukes said. "I wasn't expecting that many (innings) out of him. I was thinking maybe put him through the lineup once or twice with him and come in with somebody else but he kept going and going and probably threw one of our better pitch count games of the year."
Offensively, Valley City found different ways to get on at different times.
Alex Milender, Ben Baasch and Rodriguez all reached on walks at different points throughout the game. Baasch also was hit by a pitch in the first inning.
Magnuson and Ondracek led the team with two hits each. Magnuson had a double to lead off the second inning and a single in the sixth. Ondracek had singles in the fifth and seventh innings.
Casey Engelhard also had a single.
Had Valley City won the game with Oakes, another would have been played for the district championship.
Despite the loss, Lukes said he was thankful for the season the team had.
"They kept growing and growing and we peaked at the right time," Lukes said. "The defense came around, the players got set in positions, so it was what you want to do."
Ondracek was pleased with how the season ended, given that Valley City was the No. 2 seed in the tournament and eliminated LaMoure (No. 3) and Steele (No. 2.) Oakes was the top seed undefeated in district play all year.
"We should have been a one seed, in my mind, but coming through (the tournament) we beat the three seed, we beat the two season and barely lost to the one seed," Ondracek said. "It was a pretty good season. I don't think our boys should be hanging their heads."