LINN - When Linn defeated Canton 7-3 to advance to the Class 2 Final Four in baseball, head coach Colby Nilges was expecting a dogpile. Instead, the Wildcats calmly dropped their gloves and lined up to shake their opponents' hands.
"Man, you guys," Nilges said to his players afterward. "A little lame on the celebration."
Answered one of his players: "Well, coach, we haven't reach our goal yet."
Linn has the chance to move one step closer to that goal at 6:30 p.m. today when it takes on Valle Catholic in a state semifinal at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O'Fallon.
"I know every coach says, "They're the greatest bunch of kids I ever coached,'" Nilges said. "But these (kids) are, by far, not even comparable maturity-wise as what I've been around since I've been coaching baseball."
Nilges is in his third year as Linn's head coach. During his third year as assistant coach for the Wildcats, in 2009, Linn made its first Final Four appearance.
"It was one of those seasons where it just felt like it was meant to be," Nilges said.
Those Wildcats advanced to the Final Four with a string of three dramatic wins:
• In the district championship, they scored seven runs in the final two innings to earn a 11-10, walk-off victory against Harrisburg.
• In sectionals, Linn knocked off Palmyra 2-1 with a walk-off, 10-inning win.
• And in the quarterfinals, the Wildcats erased a seven-run deficit in the fifth inning before tallying the winning run in the sixth to beat Eugene 9-8.
But that was the last win for Linn in 2009. The Wildcats fell 4-0 to Strafford in the state semifinal and 6-2 to Plattsburg in the third-place game.
"Coming home in '09 without a win was a little disappointing, but at the same time, you're just so proud of the kids then for getting to that point," Nilges said. "When you get down to that point in the season and you get a win, you're beating some good teams."
As he returns to state, this time as head coach, Nilges wants to avoid a repeat of Linn's last trip to the Final Four.
To play in the Class 2 championship, however, the Wildcats will have to get past Valle Catholic, which won the state title the year Linn finished fourth. The Warriors, making their fourth trip to the Final Four under Judd Naeger, were ranked No. 1 in the last regular-season poll by the Missouri High School Baseball Coaches Association. Linn was ranked No. 10.
Does Linn view themselves as David to Valle Catholic's Goliath?
"On paper, it's going to look that way. But we don't think that," Nilges said. "We don't think coming in we're the underdogs."
Nilges expects Valle Catholic to throw 6-foot-5 left-hander Daniel Bergtholdt, who pitched the Warriors to their fourth-straight district championship with a five-inning no-hitter. Bergtholdt also relieved and got the Warriors out of a crucial two-out, bases-loaded jam in their sectional game against East Carter County.
"We've heard he's pretty good, but we've heard that from a lot of guys we've seen this year, and we've come out with a lot of wins," Nilges said. "We always put the ball in play, no matter who's throwing.
"It's just, you know, if we can get consecutive hits together."
As for the Wildcats' starter, Nilges said he probably wouldn't decide who will take the mound for Linn until Sunday night. He's deciding between four starters, but he said he wouldn't hesitate to make pitching changes.
"You've got to win (today) to get to where we want Tuesday, so if I've got to burn five of our quality starters (today) to get there, that's what we'll do," he said. "Whatever gives us a chance to get to Tuesday at 1 o'clock is what we'll do."
Tuesday at 1 p.m. is the scheduled start time for the Class 2 championship. If Linn (22-4) fails to topple Valle Catholic (29-3), the Wildcats will play the loser of Hartville (18-4) and Archie (19-7) at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
All games will be held at T.R. Hughes Ballpark, the home of the River City Rascals, an independent minor league team.
Nilges said his team's most important task is to remain composed on the big stage.
"It just adds something to the game," Nilges said of T.R. Hughes, which seats more than 5,000. "It adds excitement. It adds a feeling. The biggest thing for us is don't let that interfere with (what) we've been doing between the lines."
The bigger ballpark isn't the only plus of traveling to state.
"It's kind of like a team-building event," Nilges said. "You get to go spend the night with each other and go out to eat and talk and have a good time and have a little fun before the preparation."
Of course, everything's more fun when you're winning. A state title would mean a lot not only to the players, but also to the Linn community, Nilges said.
"They've come, they've filled the stands every single game - no matter the weather, who we're playing, who the competition is," Nilges said. "It would be big for everybody. It would be a pretty big accomplishment."
He thinks he has the squad that can finally reach that dogpile moment.
"You want to take care of them like your own kids. You want the best for them." Nilges said. "I know what it felt like to get there, and it was pretty neat. I want those kids to be able to feel that same thing, because it's a really neat feeling: knowing you're one of the best four baseball teams in the state of Missouri Class 2.
"And I want them to know what it feels like to be the best."