By Andy Krutsinger, Mt. Pleasant News
There may not be any Henry County teams competing for a state championship this week at the state baseball tournament in Des Moines, but that doesn?t mean the area doesn?t have a rooting interest.
Blake Heitmeier, a 2009 graduate of Mt. Pleasant, will be back for his second trip to state as a head coach. The former Panther will lead the third-seeded Carlisle Wildcats onto the field when the Class 3A tournament starts up.
Heitmeier was a four-sport athlete at Mt. Pleasant, playing baseball, basketball, football and track and field. He was a four-year varsity starter at shortstop and was a member of a number of good Panther squads, most notably the 2007 team that won 35 games and earned a spot at the state tournament.
During that 2007 season, Heitmeier was hit by the pitch 25 times. That broke the state record for most times hit by the pitch in a season, and that record still stands to this day. He briefly held the national record for career HBPs, with 54, but now stands in fourth according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
After high school, Heitmeier went to Simpson College to play both football and baseball. After graduation, he stumbled upon the perfect opportunity; a shot to coach right out of school.
?It?s kind of a right place at the right time type of thing,? Heitmeier explained. ?There was a JV basketball opening that came open the first day of basketball practice. I interviewed and (the head coach) told me I was hired and practice started in 15 minutes.?
Heitmeier was hired as a middle school social studies teacher after a semester of substituting. He started coaching the baseball team in the 2015 season, jumping right to the head coaching spot at Carlisle after coaching two summers in Indianola.
Heitmeier says he felt comfortable about the in-game aspect of being a head coach, but he was a little reluctant to take the job because of the other duties that come with being the man in charge.
?At that time, I wasn?t sure I was ready for some of the other things that came with coaching,? Heitmeier says. ?There are a lot of things you don?t think about, like fundraising, bus schedules, banquets and stuff like that.?
Heitmeier says he talked to a number of people who encouraged him to take the job, including Brent Broeker, who was Heitmeier?s head coach during his time playing for Mt. Pleasant.
It took just two years before Heitmeier found himself coaching at the state tournament. The 2016 Carlisle team, which was led by a big group of seniors, made it to Des Moines as a three seed.
After scoring a comeback win over Central Dewitt in the quarterfinals, the Wildcats knocked off Pella in the semifinals to make it to the state championship game. Carlisle was defeated in the title game by Harlan by the final score of 12-4.
?It was a tough game, knowing how good we had played (up to that point),? Heitmeier said about the loss. But we ran into a hot team and we were low on pitching.?
The 2017 team showed a lot of promise. The team won 27 games, leading Heitmeier to being named the district coach of the year. The Wildcats were edged out 6-5 in an 11-inning district final game against Bondurant-Farrar, a team that would go on to win the next game and make it to the state tournament.
?We weren?t happy with how we finished last year,? Heitmeier says. ?We were a team that was pretty highly ranked for most of the year (and) I think that lit a fire under all of us. We felt like we should have been at Principal Park.?
Now, Heitmeier and his Carlisle squad find themselves right back in the same spot as 2016. They are the third seed in the tournament and will take on Waverly-Shell Rock in the first round. That game is the third Class 3A quarterfinal and will be played on Tuesday, July 24, at 5 p.m. With a win, the Wildcats could go right back up against Harlan, who sit on the same side of the bracket as the No. 2 seed. Also in the tournament is Bondurant-Farrar, which finds itself with the eighth seed.
?We put our goals on the table our very first workout in February,? Heitmeier says. ?A lot of guys were talking about a state championship (and) I think we have enough talent and depth to do that...but the state tournament is a beast on its own. Anything can happen in the postseason. What we?ve been doing is taking it one day at a time.?
This year?s squad has won 33 games, one of which came at Mt. Pleasant on June 19. The Wildcats won that one 14-4 in Heitmeier?s return to Mapleleaf Athletic Complex. It was the first time Carlisle and Mt. Pleasant had played since Heitmeier took over as head coach.
?It was an awesome experience for me,? Heitmeier said. ?I hadn?t been to a game since my brother played. I was excited. I was happy to be back, (and) to coach on the field where I got to play was really cool.?
Heitmeier says a lot of things about the field are the same as when he played, and even recalled painting the dugouts his senior year and seeing the same coat of paint this season.
He says he owes a lot of thanks to all his coaches at Mt. Pleasant, who include Bob Jensen, Paul Rundquist, Scot Lamm and many others. But specifically he noted a chance he was given by Coach Broeker, the same one he faced off against in that regular season game in June.
?Coach Broeker gave me a chance to start at shortstop when I was just 15 years old,? Heitmeier says. ?I was probably 120 lbs. soaking wet, and he showed confidence in me. I think Coach Broeker giving me a chance as a freshman...that gave me a lot of confidence in myself.?
Heitmeier says he?d still consider some of his high school teammates some of his best friends, and that one of his favorite memories is being able to pitch to his brother (Ross Heitmeier) his senior year. He also says some of the things he learned from Broeker have been implimented in the way he coaches today.
?I?m very blessed to have those people,? Heitmeier says about his coaches and teammates at Mt. Pleasant. ?It has absolutely been instrumental to get me where I?m at today.?