Archive for Kip Kovar

KOVAR: A look back on the highlights from FDM 2022

When people look back on the 99th Minnesota Amateur State Baseball Tournament, there will be an endless amount of memories to relive. There were memorable moments that took place on the field. There were memorable stories that took place off the field.

It was a tournament to remember for a number of reasons. Despite the 2022 amateur baseball season being over, this sports writer can’t let go quite yet. That’s why I’m taking a look back on some of the most memorable moments that happened in Faribault, Dundas, and Miesville as part of the Class C and Class B state tournaments.

Bird Island outlasts Loretto in the longest state tournament game ever
This seems like a good one to start with. The title says it all.
As I was driving home from Waconia after covering the two games I saw that two of the other teams (Watertown and Loretto) were still playing. The Red Devils game ended just about when I got home, but when I got settled in, Loretto and Bird Island were still playing. I thought it worked out perfectly for me to catch a few innings before heading to bed. I was wrong.

I ended up watching 13 innings as it was the Bullfrogs who came through in the bottom of the 21st inning to finally get the win. The longest game in state tournament history was previously 20 innings. After we got to the 14th or 15th inning, I started to root for the record.

We got the record for the longest game in state tournament history and my amount of sleep took a big hit. The game ended just before 12:30 a.m. At 5 a.m., I was back at work at my part-time job on the golf course.

Chanhassen Red Birds go down in the opening round
There was a consensus on who was the favorite in Class B and for good reason. The Chanhassen Red Birds were the four-time defending Class B champions and looked poised to add another one. The Coon Rapids Red Birds had other plans.

Coon Rapids pulled the unthinkable knocking off the Class B powerhouse. The win by Coon Rapids opened the door for all other teams with the powerhouse out of the tournament early on.

With Chanhassen gone, Class B had a new feel to it as it was literally anyone’s tournament to win. I’m not the biggest Class B guy as all the teams I cover are Class C, but I found myself getting into it more and more as it turned out to be an exciting tournament with the Rochester Royals eventually claiming the state title.
Dumont takes the state by storm again
Last year at the state tournament, the Dumont Saints were one of the darlings of the tournament. After winning a game last year, the Saints became a fan favorite as people anxiously awaited to see what movie they would be watching on their way down to the state tournament.

In 2022, Dumont took the state by storm again but on a whole new level. Not only did they make it to Labor Day weekend, but the Saints were also part of what could be one of the best town ball stories of all time. Two members of the team were in a wedding on the North Dakota/Montana border the night before the game. Instead of driving back and trying to make the game on time, they used a different way to get back in time and it paid off in a big way as they not only won, but both players came through in big spots and had big games in the win for Dumont.

Webster Sox becomes a household name
Just five years ago, the Webster Sox had a 51-game losing streak. 2022 was a different story.
Not only did the Sox make their first region tournament appearance, but they also qualified for the state tournament for the first time in their organization’s history.

The run didn’t end there for Webster. The Sox rattled off a pair of wins to reach Labor Day in their first state tournament appearance.

One of the best parts of the state tournament is seeing new teams make runs. We all know the perennial powerhouses each year, but there’s something special and exciting when a team out of nowhere makes a run as Webster did.

Coming into the state tournament, all I knew was that they were one of the worst teams in the state a handful of years ago. Now they are a legitimate team that has shown what they could do on the state’s biggest stage. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Fergus Falls Hurricanes story
The 2022 state tournament was filled with awesome stories. One story that nobody is talking about is the Fergus Falls Hurricanes. It’s probably because they went 0-1 in the tournament and had their lone game moved to Waconia due to the weather.

The story surrounding the Hurricanes is a great one. Back in June, the team almost folded as they were having trouble getting players to show up to games and sign with the team. The team stuck together through it all though and ended up winning the Region 16 title.

Fergus Falls showed up to their state tournament game with 10 guys and nearly pulled off an upset against the Waconia Lakers. Down 7-0 early and 9-3 later in the game, the Hurricanes refused to go away quietly.
In the bottom of the ninth, Fergus Falls nearly walked off the Lakers with a rally if it wasn’t for a tremendous scoop at first base by Waconia’s AJ Friedrich. Had that ball got past him, the tying and winning run for Fergus Falls would have scored easily and the Hurricanes would have been playing on Labor Day weekend.
I give a lot of credit to those guys for sticking out the season and the run they went on. They were a play or two away from knocking off a powerhouse in Waconia on their home field. Guys who play hard and love the game are what I love about amateur baseball and Fergus Falls was the epitome of that in this tournament.

Weekend No. 2
The second weekend of the tournament is my favorite one. After getting a look at some of the teams on opening weekend, it’s so much fun to see those teams take their shots at region champions on weekend two.
This weekend didn’t disappoint one bit. Of the 16 games in Class C, nine of them were decided by one run and five of them went into extra innings. You couldn’t have asked for better games or matchups all weekend long and the fans were treated to some incredible games. It seemed like almost every game came down to the final pitch and that makes everything that much more interesting.

It’s crazy to think that if you look at the teams that made the Sweet 16, more than half of them could be out of it wasn’t for a play or two late in the games. Nisswa, the eventual state champions, were down 5-1 in the eighth inning before rallying to win the game. Loretto and Bird Island played an instant classic that lasted 21 innings. Watkins and Red Wing treated fans to one of the best pitching duels in the past handful of years. Hutchinson and Bluffton proved that no game is ever over until the final out.

All that happened in one weekend and it was a pleasure to be able to take that all in and be a part of it.

Looking Ahead
As good as the 2022 state tournament was, I’m even more excited for what lies ahead in 2023. The 100th anniversary of the MBA amateur state baseball tournament is poised to be as good as ever and just so happens to be in my backyard with Delano, Dassel-Cokato, and Litchfield combining to host the tournament. Those are three of the top parks in the state with some of the best people in amateur baseball running those organizations. Fans will not be disappointed in what is coming next year.

The state of amateur baseball is so healthy right now and its popularity is at an all-time high. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead next year in 2023. There are some big things planned for it all and I can’t wait to be part of it once again.

 

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports

DUNDAS AFTER DARK: A look inside and beyond the longest game in state tournament history

DUNDAS – Despite sitting through the longest state tournament game in history, Bird Island manager Mike Nagel couldn’t leave the field. He knew what he had just witnessed was something special.

The Minnesota state amateur baseball tournament is in its 99th year of existence. No game had gone longer than when the Bird Island Bullfrogs topped the Loretto Larks in the final game of weekend two by a score of 3-2 in a game that lasted 21 innings.

“After it was done, I just couldn’t leave the field,” Nagel said. “Everybody started to leave, and I just sat down on the bench. One of the guys that were there gave me two beers, and I just sat and sipped on them. Mike Ludwig was there, and they turned off all the lights, and I was the only one there. He asked me if I was OK. I said no. I’m amazing. It was the coolest thing.”

There have been three games that went 20 innings in the state tournament’s history. The most recent one came in 2017 when Brooklyn Park topped Elko 4-3. Hector and Stark in 1971 and Cyrus and Fairfax in 1976 played a 20-inning game as well.

“It was one of the more unique experiences that I’ve ever been a part of,” Bird Island’s Tyler Hebrink said. “I’m 30 years old and have been playing since I was 16. I’ve been playing for half my life. There was just something different about last night’s game.”

There were headline moments coming into, during, and after the record-breaking game. The starting pitchers for Loretto and Bird Island happened to be the sons of former major leaguers. For the Larks, Caleb Koskie got the start on the mound, the son of former Twins player Corey Koskie. For the Bullfrogs, it was Josh Kingery getting the start, the son of Mike Kingery, who played 10 years in the big leagues with six different teams.
“It was almost like it was made for a movie,” Nagel said. “You’ve got two former major leaguers with their kids pitching against each other. Our bat boy got Mike Kingery and Corey Koskie’s autographs. He was beaming the whole night.”

Josh Kingery and Caleb Koskie put on a show on the mound, matching each other early on. Then, in the top of the seventh, Corey Koskie delivered in a big way to break a 1-1 tie. Corey Koskie belted a solo home run in the inning to put the Larks up 2-1, a humbling moment for Kingery on the mound.

“I told Josh that you tried to sneak a fastball past Corey Koskie, and he laughed and said, ‘yeah, that humbled me. An almost 50-year-old man turns around on my 90-mile-per-hour fastball and deposits it 50 feet over the fence.”

Following the solo shot by Koskie, Loretto was feeling good about themselves and was just nine outs away from advancing to Labor Day weekend.

“When Corey hit the home run in the top of the seventh to put us up 2-1, I thought that was going to be enough,” Loretto’s Kent Koch said. “I thought we could finish it. I was feeling pretty confident then. I guess we were just getting started, though.”

Bird Island would tie the game in the bottom of the eighth, setting up for what would become the longest game in state tournament history. Both teams had their chances to end things earlier, even the Larks, who didn’t record a single hit from the 10th through the 19th inning. After Kingery’s day ended after 12 innings and 151 pitches in which he allowed two runs with 13 strikeouts, the Bullfrogs kept Loretto at bay.

“I told him I know you think you’re fine, but you’re 20 years old,” Nagel said about taking out Kingery, “We’re not going to ruin your life in this game. You’ve done your job. We’ll take care of it from here. Our next three pitchers pitched nine innings of no-hit baseball. We had a no-hitter inside of this game.”

Bird Island’s Jared Dettman, Kolby Holtz, and Casey Lewandowski did just that. Dettman, the son-in-law of Nagel, also has professional baseball experience playing for the Atlanta Braves organization for four seasons.
The chances to end the game earlier were both there for the Larks and Bullfrogs throughout. In the bottom of the 13th, Bird Island had the leadoff man reach on an error putting the winning run at second with no outs. After electing not to bunt, Loretto worked out of the jam as Bird Island left the bases loaded. Loretto also left the bases loaded in the top of the 16th. After Bird Island recorded the first two outs of the inning, the Bullfrogs walked three straight batters before getting out of the inning and keeping the game tied.

The Larks would have another shot to win the game in the top of the 20th. Tyler Maher led off the inning with a single and moved up all the way to third with one, thanks to a pair of wild pitches. Maher had a chance to score on an infield single by Koch but elected to stay at third. Bird Island would get out of the inning with a pair of ground balls, keeping the game tied at two.

“They had so many chances, and we had so many chances,” Nagel said. “They had (a runner on third) with one out, and the ball was hit at our shortstop. The ball went off his glove, and I thought he was going to score, but he thought it was better to go back to third. There were so many of those types of plays. Baseball is such a funky game. It’s so mental. It’s so much about mental toughness. It’s the little things like that can make or break a game. In this game, there are probably 10 or more things that each team did that could have changed the outcome.”

With the number of missed chances on both sides, frustration settled in for both dugouts. With how late the game was being played, it was tough for players on both teams to stay focused on each pitch and play as the game dragged on and on.

“I moved over to first base towards the end and was talking to the first base umpire, and we were just trying to figure out what inning it was,” Koch said. “I told him I think it’s the 14th, but I’m not really sure. You lose track in a game like that pretty easily. It was basically a one-inning game at that point no matter what inning it was.”

“I was telling people that it was like that Field of Dreams scene where they don’t keep score, and they just wanted to play,” Hebrink added. “It honestly felt like that. There were so many opportunities for both sides. Whenever somebody got one of those, nobody could do it. It just seemed like we would just keep playing forever. It was a really unique situation.”

Koch also mentioned how tough it is to be ready defensively in a game that saw both teams strike out 24 times.

“In a game like that with a lot of strikeouts, it does get tough to play in the field,” he said. “You’re rarely getting some action, and then all of a sudden you do, and it turns out to be a big play. It was one of those games where you just have to keep each other up and go make something happen with the next chance you get.”
Staying focused got harder and harder throughout the game the later it got. As the game went on, so did the pressure each chance a team had the opportunity to deliver in a big spot.

“It’s so difficult to try and stay in the moment at that time of the night,” Hebrink added. “We’ve been playing for almost six hours. How many times did we have our best hitter up, or they have their best hitter up with a chance to win it? It was almost like you were a completely different hitter with that pressure. That added pressure was so much because we’ve been playing for so long that we’re just begging for somebody to end it. It just took forever to get that hit. We were all just gassed. We have been there since 3 o’clock that day. How do you anticipate playing 21 innings? You just can’t. We’d come into the dugout, and there would be a two or three-inning stretch where we had to build up some energy. Every three innings or so, you’d get a runner. It just took a couple of innings each time to get that energy and momentum back after not being able to capitalize on any situation over and over again. We just got completely drained.”

In the bottom of the 21st inning, closing in on six hours of game time, the Bullfrogs broke through at last. Trent Athmann led off the inning by reaching on an error and moved up to second on a single by Shawn Dollerschell on a perfect hit-and-run call.

“In the inning, we scored, we had a guy on first and with a 1-0 count,” Nagel said. “I thought let’s put a hit and run on.”

With the winning run just 90 feet away, Nagel elected to go small ball and manufacture the run in. There was just one problem. Hebrink had other plans.

“Tyler comes up and won’t even look at me,” Nagel said. “I thought it was unbelievable because he knew I was going to do it. He didn’t look purposely because he knew he was going to get a hit, and he did. I really wanted to go small ball.”

Before the inning began, Hebrink knew Bird Island was going to end the game here if he got a chance. He got his chance, and he delivered.

“We got into the dugout in the last inning, and we’re all fed up at this point,” Hebrink said. “I was up to bat fourth that inning, and I told the guys half joking and half serious that if I get up, we will win this game.”

A base hit up the middle  from Hebrink scored Athmann giving Bird Island a thrilling 3-2 walk-off win in the bottom of the 21st.

“He (Nagel) told me after the game he was thinking of doing a squeeze,” Hebrink said. “When I went up to the plate, I didn’t even think about that. Looking back, I absolutely should have thought about that. I was just ready to go. They had the infield in, and he was going to put it over the plate, and I was just going to try to get something to the outfield. In hindsight, I probably should have taken a step out and seen what he wanted to do, but it all worked out.”

At 12:14 a.m., the longest game in state tournament history ended. The time of the game was 5 hours and 36 minutes. There were more than 650 pitches thrown. There were 38 runners left on base. There were nine straight innings of the no-hit ball by the Bullfrogs. There was a major league pedigree on the field and in the stands. There was a little bit of everything.

“When you’ve been in baseball this long, you just respect a moment like this,” Nagel said. “It’s something that might never happen again. This might be my last state tournament. You never know. You just relish the time you’re there. That’s why I just sat there and was so content.”

Bird Island advances to play Red Win on Labor Day weekend following the marathon. Despite playing more than two games worth in one game, the Bullfrogs and the Larks left it all on the field and set a new state tournament record.

“When you play in this tournament, you need some kind of a moment that solidifies you and brings your team together,” Nagel said. “It’s all about that chemistry. This was our game. Whether we win anymore or not, and if we do, I think it’s because of what we had to go through. Almost every team that wins the state tournament has one game they were on the ropes at one point and very likely should have lost. I thought Loretto outplayed us.”

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports

AMATEUR BASEBALL: Watertown Red Devils ready to run things back in 2022

WATERTOWN – Four years ago the Watertown Red Devils were a team that just struggled to get it done in the postseason. A year ago they were 90 feet away from winning a state title.
A lot can change in the span of four years and the Red Devils are proof of that. Watertown has gone from a perennial early exit in the region tournament to now being one of the favorites to win it all in the 2022 Class C state tournament.

Watertown has been on an impressive ride in the 2022 season coming off their runner-up finish in 2021. In the span of four years, they’ve gone from a team who can’t get it done to a team that could win it all and they’re doing it with the same guys.
“I think we haven’t changed and that’s important,” Watertown’s Pat Tschida said about the biggest key for his team on how they got to where they are. “Consistency is key. When you have consistent leadership or a group of leaders, success follows consistency. That has been a big contributor to it. I really do think it’s our maturity. The maturity aspect has been huge for us. We just created this culture where we all want to be together and it makes it fun. We have so many guys who just respect each other. I think with that respect comes the willingness to compete.”

Watertown’s run to the Class C title game a year ago might have come as a surprise to some. It wasn’t to them. The Red Devils are a team that has come together over the years on and off the field. With a ton of pitching and a group of guys who truly enjoy being around each other, success came naturally for the Red Devils at the state tournament last season.

“That’s the most important part of our team,” Red Devils manager Jared Duske said. “It’s not the pitching and it’s not the hitting. I think it’s the comradery. We like being around each other. Everyone is into the game from the first pitch on. Everyone is really supportive of each other. The comradery on this team is special. That’s where I think our team differs from other teams.”

After coming up short in the state title game last season, many expected the Red Devils to come out a bit sluggish to start the 2022 season. That wasn’t the case at all as they hit the ground running from the opening day as they had one of the best regular seasons in the Crow River Valley League and won their first region title since 2008 in the process.

“Our guys have done really well with showing up each game,” Duske said. “A big word this year for us has been compete. We don’t want to show up and just go through the motions. League games or non-league games, we want to go out there and play good baseball. We scheduled a lot of games this year and played top competition. All of that was to prepare us for where we are now.”

After last year’s run in the state tournament, the Red Devils have gone from a team that a few people know to one of the favorites to win it all this year. While the perception of Watertown has changed around the state, they’re still the same group of guys who love the game and want to finish something they started last season.

“We know that we have a little bit of a target on our back,” Duske said. “It’s a little different than last year. In the state tournament, anything can happen. You need a little luck on your side and you need to play good baseball. We know people know who we are now and that’s OK. It’s kind of nice to be a team that people know now. We went from not making state ever to being one of the favorites. I think as a team, it’s about unfinished business. We also know we have to take one game at a time. We know what to expect going in now with the big lights on. I’ll say that we got something to accomplish with this group. The guys want to do it. We were 90 feet away from it last year. The guys want it.”

As bad as Watertown wants to repeat their run from last season, they know how crucial it is to take things one game at a time. That’s where a leader comes in.

“It’s definitely one game at a time,” Tschida said. “If we have a span where we’re looking four games ahead and all of a sudden we’re done 4-0, that changes everything. It’s single elimination. I think it has to be one game at a time. I enjoy thinking about last year. It’s one of those things where we had an opportunity. It was a cool experience. It only helps us to grow. It’s definitely unfinished business, but we have to take it one game at a time. We can’t look ahead. We have the talent to do it. We have the fire and desire to do it, but in this tournament, anything can happen so we just have to stay focused on what’s right ahead of us.”

The first team that stands in the way of Watertown is the Cold Spring Rockies. They are coming off a convincing 20-4 win over New York Mills in the opening round of the state tournament last weekend.
Watertown has been off for two weeks since winning the Region 7C title game. Although they took in some games over the weekend, the Red Devils are eagerly awaiting their chance to take the field and begin what they hope is another long postseason run.

“I’m kind of bummed that we haven’t gotten to play yet,” Tschida said. “I’m just waiting to be able to play and compete. I’m excited. I was able to sit in the stands in Dundas last weekend and watch the games and see the level of competitiveness. Being back at that state tournament atmosphere was fun. I’m just itching to get out there.”

Pitching is what many people will bring up when talking about the Red Devils as a team. In last year’s state tournament run, their offense, particularly in clutch situations from players in the bottom of the order, was a big reason for the run they made and something they know they need to have again this year.

“It’s truly what separates the good teams from the bad,” Tschida said. “Once you get through your first four or five hitters and you don’t have anyone behind that who can deliver competitive at-bats, it’s really hard. If you have a bottom of the order like we have, those guys are incredible and change games. Hopefully, those guys can be big for us again because we’re going to need it.”

The road to the title game wasn’t an easy one for Watertown last year. In their first game of the Labor Day weekend against Eagle Lake, the Red Devils found themselves in a hole early on only to rally late and keep the season alive with an impressive comeback win. That win gave the team a big boost of confidence they still ride today knowing that they are capable of coming back and winning games even if they get down early or late.

“We’re always preaching that we’re never out of a ballgame,” Duske said. “Eagle Lake last year was a great example. We had a couple of things that didn’t go our way and we never worried. We’re never out of the ballgame with the guys we have. The guys are seeing that and believing that. We don’t care if we’re down three in the ninth with two outs. We’re going to compete. Each guy has matured into that role and mindset. That’s been a huge part of our success.”

Watertown gets their state tournament going Sunday, Aug. 28 when they take on Cold Spring at 4:30 p.m. in Faribault. As they take the field for the first time, they’ll do so with a smile on their faces knowing they have a chance to do something special again with their teammates.

“The guys are ready,” Duske said. “We’ve kept busy at the park. Guys are out there almost every day. They’re excited. We have a great group of guys that want to be around each other. There are no bad apples. If there’s even just one bad apple it can spoil things. We really haven’t had that since we have such a good group of guys. We’re more mature and we’re older and we’ve figured out the game a little bit which is cool to see. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”

“I just want to enjoy the hell out of it,” Tschida added. “Going to the park is fun. It’s supposed to be fun. It makes you feel like you’re playing something that’s bigger than it is. I enjoy it all. Hopefully, we can take care of business and have another run at things.

REGION 12C PREVIEW: Anything can happen in Region 12C Tournament with deep field

Over the years, the North Star League and Region 12C have only gotten better and better. That was the case in 2022 as fans were treated to a thrilling regular season all year long as the NSL was loaded with talent from top to bottom.

An exciting season will continue as eight teams remain searching for a spot in the Class C State Tournament. With one of the deepest fields in years, the Region 12C Tournament hosted by the Litchfield Blues looks to be as exciting as ever.

The following is a preview of the first-round matchups for the Region 12C Tournament.

(1) Delano vs. (8) Loretto

Both these teams were playing in the Class C State Tournament a year ago. Now they meet in the first round of the Region 12C Tournament in the opening game. The A’s have been the top team in the North Star League all season long while the Loretto Larks have had a season filled with ups and downs. The Larks are coming into the region tournament after beating Rockford and Maple Plain in the league play-in games to secure the final spot.

When it comes to the A’s, it starts with their offense. One of the top-scoring teams in the state, Delano will be a tough out once again this postseason. The A’s are in their prime right now and will be looking to not only get back to the state tournament but also make a deep run as well.

Trevor Jaunich and Toby Hanson power the dangerous lineup for the A’s. Both have an average of over .400 to go along with some impressive power numbers. Jaunich led the team in home runs with six while Hanson finished with four.

Jack Paulson is another big bat to watch for Delano. He led the team with an average of .457 to go along with four home runs and 48 RBI.

Pitching has also taken a big step forward this season for the A’s. Delano has four players with three or more wins this season on the mound. Matt Arens led the way with five wins while Mike Weber and Jake Gleason each finished with four wins. Jake Nelson also racked up three wins.

For the Larks, it’s been a season filled with highs and lows. Loretto could never quite get things rolling with a hiccup at some point but found a way to get back to the Region 12C Tournament once again.

The offense has come alive lately with double-digit runs in their wins over Rockford and Maple Plain. Despite a record of just 10-14, the Larks have played well at times this season. Of their 14 losses, six of them have come by two runs or less. A play here or there goes their way and the Larks move up a handful of seeds but they enter the tournament as a dangerous No. 8 seed.

Keenan Hodgkin is the bat to watch for the Larks. Heading into the final stretch of the regular season, he led the league in hitting with an average of .585. He also led the league in doubles with 11. Ben Leuthner, Tyler Maher, Kent Koch, and Nathan Maher are other players to watch offensively for the Larks. Of course, Loretto also has former Twin Corey Koskie they can turn to in big spots like he did last season.

On the mound, the Larks will need to step up their game. That’s where the struggles have been this season but they’ve shown glimpses of being able to hold teams in check.

(4) Litchfield vs. (5) Buffalo 

One of the more interesting matchups in the first round is the Litchfield Blues taking on the Buffalo Bulldogs. The Blues are one of the most improved teams in the state while the Bulldogs are one of those teams who are talented yet just had a tough regular season.

Avery Liestman is worth the price of admission for fans alone. Becoming one of the premier talents in the NSL, Liestman and the Blues will be looking to keep their stellar season rolling on their home field under the bright lights of the Region 12C Tournament. For the season, Liestman had an average of .493 to go along with 10 doubles, two home runs, and 19 RBI. If that’s not enough, he also posted a 1.73 ERA in 62 innings with a record of 4-2 while racking up 69 strikeouts. Jack Ramthun and Joey Hyde are two other pitchers to watch for the Blues as they both picked up three wins this year.

Other players to watch offensively for Litchfield are Andrew Loch and Jake Jones. Loch posted an average of .326 to go along with 10 RBI while Jones hit .395 with six doubles and 19 RBI.

For Buffalo, they still have one of the top offenses in the league. It just hasn’t resulted in wins this year. The bats are still a huge problem to deal with for opposing teams as Buffalo had a team batting average of .305 this year.

Colton Haight, Justin Johnson, Brett Renshaw, and Cole LaPlante highlight the offense for the Bulldogs. All four have an average over .300. Johnson and Renshaw each had three home runs while Tommy Eckstein adds even more power to the lineup with four home runs himself.

Like the Loretto Larks, pitching will need to improve for the Bulldogs if they want to make some noise at the Region 12C Tournament. As a team, they posted an ERA of 5.66, a number that will need to improve.

John Weber and Jon Euerle come in as the top two pitchers for Buffalo. Euerle posted an ERA of 3.92 while Weber finished with an ERA of 3.99. Both finished with three wins along with Michael Weber and Carter Vogt. The Bulldogs don’t have a true ace and will rely on their entire pitching staff to make a run at the Region 12C Tournament.

(3) Maple Lake vs. (6) Howard Lake

Another interesting matchup in the first round features the Maple Lake Lakers and Howard Lake Orphans. These are two good teams that can beat anybody and will be on the top matchups in the first round. The Lakers and Orphans split their two regular-season matchups with both games decided by two runs or less. Howard Lake won a 3-2 matchup while Maple Lake won the second meeting by a score of 2-0.

The Orphans are a team that is starting to see their young talent pay off. It has them back at the region tournament and looking to get back to state after missing out in 2021.

Cole Macziewski is one of the top hitters to watch for the Orphans. He finished the year with an average of .375. Other key bats for Howard Lake to watch are Jared Koch, Brad Bickmann, and Matt Streich.

Koch has also been one of their top pitchers this season. Combine him with veteran and manager Mike Dockendorf and Howard Lake has a nice one-two punch to lead the way on the mound. Bickmann also has given the Orphans some big innings this year and is an arm to watch.

For Maple Lake, they’ve had another strong season and are looking to capitalize on it by reaching the state tournament. They’ve been consistent all season long and are a team to watch not only at the Region 12C Tournament but at the state tournament as well if they’re able to make it.

Maple Lake has five terrific hitters who have been putting together a strong season. Ben Clapp leads the way with a .436 average while Riley Decker, Hunter Malachek, Logan Orazem, and Donnie Mavencamp all have an average of .333 or better. Malachek leads the team in RBI with 31 while also showing some power with a team-best four home runs. Clapp leads the Lakers in doubles with 13 and is second in home runs with three while Brock Goelz has two home runs himself.

On the mound, Malachek has been just as good. In nine starts, he’s earned seven wins while posting an ERA of 1.75. Ben Reilley (0.64 ERA) and Luke Fobbe (0.93) are also two legit arms for the Lakers to lean on.

(2) Hutchinson vs. (7) Cokato

The Hutchinson Huskies come into the Region 12C Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the state. After getting off to a tough start, the Huskies have been lighting up the scoreboard and racking up the wins. The Huskies opened the season with a 1-5 record. Since then they have won 23-straight games, 16 of which have come by 10 or more runs.

For the Cokato Kernels, they’re looking to try and slow down the red-hot Huskies. Another strong year for them has the Kernels back in the region tournament and looking to steal a state tournament bid away from the top four seeds.

Leading the way for Hutchinson at the plate have been Jayden Fleck, Lane Glaser, Zach Kueseske, and Jake Wendland. All four have an average of over .400 on the season. Fleck has been on a tear all season long with nine home runs and 31 RBI. As a team, the Huskies have hit 30 home runs this year as the power of their lineup is something to watch.

The pitching has been very good for the Huskies as well this season. With a team ERA of 2.79, Hutchinson has shown they can win low-scoring games or pile up the runs with their powerful offense.

John DeRock is one of the top arms for the Huskies. He has an ERA of 1.74 in 46 innings of work. Kueseske has also been nearly unhittable with an ERA of 1.03 in 61 innings of work.

For the Kernels, they bring a mix of experience and young talent. They’ll be looking for that to gel and make a run this year. They’ve shown they can play with some of the best teams in the NSL and will try and do that once again and make a run as one of the two bottom seeds in the Region 12C Tournament.

SECTION 5AA BASEBALL: Royals move one step closer to ultimate goal by winning Section 5AA title

DASSEL – An item as simple as a Target bag set the tone for the Watertown-Mayer baseball team this season.
On the first day of practice, Royals head coach Ryan Trucke and his assistants showed up wanting an answer from their players. Expecting to hear that the ultimate goal for the season would be to make it to state, Trucke and his coaches were surprised by their answers. After each player made it clear the goal would be to win state this year, Trucke and his coaches took out a Target bag to symbolize where their final game of the season would be played – Target Field

The Royals moved one step close to that goal as they captured the Section 5AA title with an impressive 7-2 win over Glencoe-Silver Lake Thursday. The Panthers were the defending Class AA state champions.

“The very first day of practice I asked them what the goal was,” Trucke said. “ I was expecting them to say to go to state. The first guy and every guy I looked at said win state. It wasn’t just to get there. They had all thought about it independently and maybe talked about it, but they knew they had something special too.”

“Coming into the season, we knew we had something special,” Connor Donovan added. “ Last year we did pretty good but had a rough first round of the playoffs. This year we came in with a lot of confidence.”

The confidence for the Royals showed as they jumped out to an early lead over the Panthers in the Section 5AA title game. W-M came out ready to play as they held G-SL without a hit for the first four innings and held a 4-0 lead heading to the fifth.

“We didn’t even talk about it,” Trucke said about the possibility of playing two games. “We just talked about taking care of business and playing defense. Defense never slumps. It was all about one inning at a time. One pitch at a time. We don’t worry about anything beyond that.”

“We just came out to play,” Donovan added. “We knew we had to put on the pressure and make them less aggressive. When they’re down, they don’t bunt or steal as much so it was huge to get a lead early.”

Despite not having a hit through four innings and down four runs, G-SL didn’t go away quietly. After the first out of the inning was recorded, the Panthers strung together five-straight hits to cut W-M’s lead in half. With the bases loaded and still only one out, Trucke turned to Jaren Vogt on the mound and he needed just six pitches to get out of the jam as he started a double play on a comebacker to the mound.

The Royals would respond in a big way. Just eight pitches later, W-M already got one of those runs back as Vogt delivered with an RBI double. The Royals would add on two more in the inning to push their lead back to 7-2 and they never looked back as they showed what they’re made of like they have all season.

“That’s literally how we’ve been all year,” Trucke said. “When we played Rockford, they scored one and we came back with two. These guys are tough and they’re resilient. They don’t panic. That was the best thing about us today. They didn’t panic after they got five-straight hits. They got the outs and came in and took care of business. They did a really good job.”

That’s one thing we’ve talked about all tournament,” Donovan added. “We want to compete. If a team puts up some runs, we always want to respond.”

The season for the Royals has been an interesting one. After losing arguably their best player to injury, W-M hasn’t used that as an excuse for anything. They’ve continued to find ways to win as they’ve gotten contributions from all over the roster to secure their first state tournament appearance since 2013.

“We lost probably our best player (Wyatt McCabe) for the year earlier this season,” Trucke said. “We haven’t missed a beat. Nobody talked about it. Nobody felt sorry for themselves. We just played. Everybody one through nine had hit the ball and contributed in some form or another.”

“It feels amazing,” catcher Nick Anderstrom said. “It was a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun playing with my team. The hard work has paid off. Now we just have to keep working.”

The Royals are a unique team as well. With no real star player on the roster, W-M relies on different players stepping up. A steady showcase of leadership from the seniors has helped them be successful as the entire team is all about one thing – winning.

“It starts with the seniors,” Trucke said. “They’re completely selfless. They always say whatever role you give me, I’m going to do the best I can and if you need more let me know. All the way through, some guys were playing out of position when Wyatt got hurt and nobody blinked an eye. If you want me to play there, I’ll play there. They’ve been awesome. To them, it’s just about winning. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”

The Royals will wait to see what seed they are for the Class AA state tournament. Brackets will be released Saturday and W-M will open the tournament Tuesday, June 14 in St. Cloud at Dick Putz Field.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar-HJSports 

AMATEUR BASEBALL: Plato Bluejays to debut new lights Saturday night

PLATO – For most organizations, the idea of adding lights to a park can be a long process. Not for the Plato Bluejays. In the span of months, the Bluejays rallied together with the community to accomplish a longtime dream. Come the 2022 season, there will be lights shining down on Bluejays Stadium for the first time ever.

“The players are as jacked as could be,” Plato manager Adam Damman said. “Not even that, I think all the Plato board members can’t get over how this happened so fast. It’s going to be a wish come true for the Plato community, players, and alumni. Nobody ever thought this would happen. There’s a lot of buzz around town.”

What started as a Plato vs. Carver game quickly turned into more. While Joel Lepel and Paul Twenge were chatting during the game, Twenge asked the question of why Plato doesn’t have lights. Known as one of the top ballparks in the state without lights, the plan to add lights was set in motion. Twenge mentioned to Lepel that the Minnetonka field was planning to get new lights. Lepel jumped on the opportunity to get the old lights from the field, and Plato was first in line to get them. After securing the funds, the wheels were in motion for the Bluejays to make a dream a reality.

“Right after the region tournament was when we knew we were going forward with it,” Damman said.

The addition of lights to Bluejay Stadium is a dream come true for those who call the place home. While Plato can certainly play night games now, it also opens up a lot more opportunities for people beyond the Bluejays.

“One of the biggest things is what else can we do with it now,” Damman said. “Granted it’s Bluejay Stadium, it’s a community field as a whole. With the school district using it and the youth teams we have, there’s going to be so many more opportunities for those kids and those programs to be able to play at that field and not have to search for another field with lights.”

With the addition of lights, the Bluejays will continue to work and make upgrades to the park itself in the hopes of someday bringing a state tournament to the town of Plato.

“When it comes to tournaments, hopefully, once we do a little more around the park with the field and cosmetic stuff, we can hopefully do something with a state tournament,” Damman said. “It’s going to allow us to do so much more.”

The Bluejays will make their debut under the new lights for the first time Saturday Night when they host the Young America Cardinals. After considering debuting on a Friday night, Plato opted to make it a full day of celebration as the Cardinals will come to town. The reason for choosing Young America to debut the lights was simple.

“We’ve had such a good rivalry with Young America,” Damman said. “They’ve become that bigger rivalry with the kids. There’s a lot of history there. That’s why we chose Young America. It stinks that they have to go up to Class B so we thought it would be pretty cool for them to be the first ones on the field.”

The addition of lights wouldn’t be possible without the help of many people and organizations. The Plato Bluejays would like to thank the following people and companies that made the addition of lights possible: the city of Plato, Security Bank & Trust, Great River Energy, McLeod County Coop, Joel Lepel, Grant Miller, Dave Whittus, Lyle Engelmann, Les Engelmann, Chris Engelmann, Dave Prehn, the Plato Bluejays board, and all those who donated to make things happen and the Plato community for the support.

 For in-game updates on the matchup between the Bluejays and Young America, follow Kip Kovar on Twitter –2 @Kovar_HJSports