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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 

PREP SOFTBALL: Otterness hits season-high in strikeouts in shutout of HLWW

WATERTOWN – It was safe to say Abby Otterness had things working for the Watertown-Mayer softball team. The junior ace pitcher for the Royals tallied a new season-high 14 strikeouts as part of her impressive 2-0 shutout of Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted Monday.

“When she’s on, she’s on,” Royals coach Bethany Loether said. “I’d argue she’s one of the best pitchers in our conference. She’s just getting better and better as the season goes on.”

After striking out the side in order to start the game, Otterness got some support from her teammates in their first at-bat of the game. Jada Kostmatka led off the inning with a single. With two outs, Otterness helped herself out with an RBI single to put the Royals up 1-0.

W-M would add on an insurance run in the bottom of the third thanks to an RBI single from Payton Hecksel. That two-run cushion was more than enough with Otterness in control in the circle.

“We have a good team,” Loether said. “It’s just a matter of finding that confidence in ourselves. I think that’s starting to come out a little bit in the last few games. We know we can do it and win games.”

Otterness finished the game allowing just two hits and one walk. Her season-high 14 strikeouts marked the fourth time this season she’s struck out 10 or more in a game. For the year, Otterness has an ERA of 1.78 in 70 innings of work.

It was the second dominant game for Otterness against HLWW. Earlier in the year, she completed a five-inning no-hitter in a 10-0 win for the Royals.

With the win, W-M improved to 10-7 on the year and has won three straight. With just two games left in the regular season, the Royals are looking to keep their momentum rolling heading into the postseason.

“Right now, our focus is on sections,” Loether said. “Our goal is to play clean ball and get some momentum heading into the playoffs.”

The Royals close out the regular season with a doubleheader against Litchfield. Following that, W-M will have three days of practice to gear up for what they hope will be a deep postseason run.

“We have three days of practice coming up and we haven’t had practice in like two weeks,” Loether said. “ I’m looking forward to just being able to revamp and refocus before heading into the postseason. Our goal is to win every inning right now. That’s our focus and mentality. We want to keep that pressure on. Even though we didn’t quite get them across today, we had people in scoring position pretty much every inning. I’m OK with that because we’re progressing.”

For HLWW, they dropped to 4-14 on the season. The Lakers will close out the season with three home games against Dassel-Cokato, Rockford, and Norwood Young America.

For the complete story and more Herald Journal sports coverage, check out the May 20 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information.  Subscribers have full access to this article and more by clicking here. Subscriptions start as low as $1.50 for a two-day subscription, the same price as a newspaper on a newsstand.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports

PREP BASEBALL: Royals issue statement with a sweep of the top-ranked team in Class AA

WATERTOWN – Coming into the day, the Watertown-Mayer baseball had a chance to show just how good they are. Mission accomplished.

After holding off Glencoe-Silver Lake in the first of two games, the Royals rode that momentum to a sweep of the top-ranked team in Class AA to stay perfect on the season with a 7-5 and 8-1 win over the Panthers Tuesday night.

“The first game was ugly and we survived,” Royals coach Ryan Trucke said. “I think the big thing was after surviving the first one and getting the win, we came out and played really well in the second game. It was a good day. They’ve dominated this conference for years. To win two against them is huge.”

“It feels great,” senior Albert Rundell added. “They’re a pretty good team. We knew we had to bring the energy and played pretty well today and that’s what we did. We got two wins against a top 10 ranked team.”

After being forced to hold onto the win in the first game, W-M set the tone early that there would be no letting down. Instead of being content with one win, the Royals took control of the game early and never looked back to pick up the sweep in the process.

“This group is really good about refocusing and resetting,” Trucke said. “Whether it’s an at-bat or when they’re pitching, they are really good at that. Good teams split. If you want to be great you win both. That’s all I said between games. Great teams sweep and we did.”

Game one came down to doing all the little things for the Royals. W-M turned three double plays and got out of a big jam in the sixth inning to keep their lead intact. G-SL had runners on second and third with nobody out in a one-run game, Ben Trucke was able to pick off the runner at second for the first out of the inning. A groundball to first turned into a double play for W-M as they escaped the inning without allowing a run on just two pitches.

“What made the difference was the pick-off at second base,” Trucke said. “When Ben came in and picked him off, we got a little momentum going and had some energy. Then we turned the double play to get out of that inning and rolled from there. I think that one play was huge. We always talk about the little things. You got to do the little things to win. There’s a million of them and you’re never sure which one is going to come up big in a game.”

After watching the Panthers let a scoring chance slip away in the top half of the inning, W-M responded in their half of the inning. The Royals tagged on three big insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth to seal the win and hand the Panthers just their second loss of the season.

“Our coach has always preached doing the little things,” Rundell said. “If we do the little things, big things will come. If we do that, everything will fall into place.”

W-M had six different players record at least one hit in the first win of the night. That included the eighth (Connor Donovan) and ninth (Ashton Hecksel) hitters to start a two-out rally in the bottom of the fourth to extend their lead to two after G-SL tied the game in the third.

“We’ve gotten contributions from all over our lineup,” Trucke said. “They’ve done a good job from one to 13. If one guy has a bad day, somebody else is picking them up. It’s huge when everybody can do a job. Those eight and nine guys have been getting pinched hit for lately. They did a good job of getting on base and staying with it. When you get hit for every time, you can just quit. They did a really good job today.”

The Royals rolled in game two to complete the sweep thanks to a gem on the mound from Rundell. He allowed just one run in six innings of work while allowing just three hits.

The win for W-M moves them to 8-0 on the season. Although the pair of wins is nice, the Royals know they have a big stretch ahead with another conference game with Rockford coming up along with a road trip north to take on two of the state’s best.

“We have 12 games in 10 days,” Trucke said. “This is the test. Rockford is always tough. Then Saturday we’re going to see two of the best teams in the state by design. We knew we were going to be a pretty good team this year so that’s a good test for us to see where we measure up.”

“10 games in 12 days (is a lot),” Rundell added. “We’re trying to come out of that 10-0. That means every game is a big game. We’re trying to win big games.”

For the complete story and more Herald Journal sports coverage, check out the May 6 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information.  Subscribers have full access to this article and more by clicking here. Subscriptions start as low as $1.50 for a two-day subscription, the same price as a newspaper on a newsstand.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports