KOVAR: Reliving some of the top moments of my amateur baseball coverage

The amateur baseball season across the state should just be heating up. Instead, the season is still in limbo.

Each of the past few weekends, I found something missing. There should be plenty of amateur baseball coverage. While there are surely some games during the week, those Sunday afternoon games always seemed to stick out.

With no coverage going on right now for the near future, I came up with the idea of looking back on some of the best games I’ve covered over the years. On average, I cover about 50-60 games per season. Most of the time even more.

A little less than a month ago, myself along with Jeremy Stender, Chris Dammann, and Josh Monahan put together the Crow River Valley League All-Decade team. This time, I wanted to put together some of my favorite games I covered as we all wait for the return of amateur baseball this summer.

While putting this list together, I realized that I am a pretty lucky guy. There have been so many great moments and performances over the past few years, and I’ve had a front-row seat for all of them.

It was a blast to go back and relive some of these moments as I connected with some key players and managers that took part in those games. It was fun to see how much those players remembered about these games.

Let’s get started back where my amateur baseball coverage really began.

Sleepy Eye vs. Stark (2015 Tomahawk East League Playoffs)

If you’ve never taken in a baseball game in the southwest corner of the state, I highly recommend you do. It’s baseball country, and the people there love their baseball.

In the Tomahawk East League, baseball is something else. There’s beautiful parks, great food, and even better baseball. That’s why even five years later, one game in particular sticks out.

The Sleepy Eye Indians were taking on the Stark Longhorns for a trip to the Region 2C Tournament. After the teams split the first two games, it set up a winner takes all game that didn’t disappoint. Stark won Game 1 by a score of 8-5, and Sleepy Eye bounced back in game two with a 20-1 win in seven innings to force a game three. Two teams filled with local talent were set to square off in a game to keep their seasons alive.

With the game tied heading into extra innings, Stark had a golden chance to score the go-ahead run in the top half of the 10th. Adam Sellner, Stark’s go-to pitcher who was also working on a gem, found himself at second after leading off the inning with a double. Instead of Stark taking the lead, Sleepy Eye’s Sean Mathiowetz picked off Sellner at second base, ending the Stark threat and keeping the game tied.

Sleepy Eye’s Alex Sellner reached on an error to start the bottom of the 10th for the Tribe and moved up to second. The Longhorns decided to intentionally walk Mathiowetz and Joey Walter to load the bases and set up a force out at any base with one out. Adam Sellner got Alan Woitas to ground out to him and the Longhorns got Alex Sellner at the plate for the second out, which brought Andrew Woitas up to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs.

Andrew Woitas was 0-for-4 against Adam Sellner in this game, and 0-for-9 in the series against him, but it only took one time.

“I was just looking for something I could drive the other way,” Andrew Woitas said about the at-bat. “I’ve been rolling over a lot, so my approach was to go the other way and get a fastball ahead in the count and put a good swing on it.“

Woitas took that fastball he got for a base hit between the shortstop and third baseman to score Mathiowetz for the walk-off win to send the Indians to the Region 2C Tournament.

Winsted vs. Mayer (2016 Crow River Valley League Playoffs)

I’ve dubbed this game as the greatest no-decision in baseball history. It was also on the weirdest games I’ve ever covered that still sticks out to this day.

Around the world of amateur baseball, the name Tony Kley is a familiar one. He was the 2015 Class C State Tournament MVP and is arguably one of the greatest amateur baseball pitchers this state has ever seen.

Throughout Kley’s amateur baseball career, there has been plenty of highlights; winning a state title in 2015 as a draftee with Plato, winning CRVL MVPs and Pitchers of The Year, and many more. When you’re as good as he is, there’s plenty of memorable moments. Out of all those moments, this one sticks out for sure.

It was simply one game he pitched. In that game I’m talking about, he didn’t get the win on the mound. He also didn’t get the loss. Instead, he earned a no-decision, and in my opinion, it’s one of the best no decision performances I’ve ever seen or heard about at any level in baseball.

Let’s set the scene. It’s the 2016 CRVL playoffs and the Winsted Wildcats are set to square off with the Mayer Blazers in a best-of-three-game series. There was no doubt who would get the start in Game 1 for Winsted, and you could even say there was little doubt of who would get the win with Kley on the mound. The Wildcats were one of the top teams in the CRVL all season long, while the Blazers were at the bottom of the league. It seemed like an easy win on paper for Kley and the Wildcats.

In Game 1 against the Blazers, Kley had a no-hitter through eight innings. That no-hit bid was finally broken up after a single by Tanner Luebke. It was the only hit Kley allowed in the game. A one-hit shutout should be good enough to get a win, right? Wrong.

After nine innings of play, Winsted and Mayer were still scoreless as the Wildcats were unable to pick up a single run to back up Kley’s dominant performance on the mound.

After dominating the Blazers through nine innings, Kley came out for the 10th inning and looked even stronger.

The Wildcats failed to score in the bottom of the 10th once again, ending Kley’s day as Brady Jenkins came out to pitch in the 11th. Kley’s final stat line looked like this. He pitched 10 innings, allowed just one hit, struck out 21 batters, and still didn’t get the win.

If that isn’t a weird enough ballgame, here’s how the game ended. The Blazers and Wildcats were still scoreless entering the bottom of the 12th inning. Mayer still had just one hit to their credit, and in the bottom half of the inning, the Wildcats finally pushed the winning run across that Kley deserved.

How did that winning run score? It wasn’t a walk-off hit. It wasn’t an error. It wasn’t even a live play. With the bases loaded, Cullen Schultz was hit by a pitch, scoring Matt Elsenpeter and giving Winsted a 1-0 victory in 12 innings.

Winsted vs. Gaylord (2016 Class C State Tournament)

Just like his brother Tony, Joe Kley is a name people know when it comes to amateur baseball, and for good reason. After a stellar collegiate career at Winona State, Kley continued to wreak havoc in the batter’s box throughout his amateur baseball care

Kley and the Winsted Wildcats took on Brody Rodning and the Gaylord Islanders. Roding, a now member of the Toronto Bluejays organization, had a heavy heart as he took the mound.

“I know going into the game we felt pretty good even though we knew we would face Rodning,” Kley said. “We had faced a few hard-throwing left-handers already, so our goal was to try and get to the bullpen as soon as we could. Brody is a tremendous athlete, so of course, he was able to pitch deep into that game. I believe it was also around the time of his mother’s cancer diagnosis, so we knew he was pitching for something special.”

It was a pitcher’s battle throughout as the game was tied at one heading into the ninth inning. After Winsted failed to score in the top half, the Islanders had a great chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth.

The Islanders had the winning run at second base with two outs, but a fantastic play from Garrett Zander in center field kept things alive for the Wildcats. Gaylord’s Travis Schmidt with a blooper over shortstop that looked like it would drop for a base hit, but Zander made an unbelievable diving catch to end the inning and keep the game tied heading to the 10th inning.

“Our defense held us in the game and Tony threw seven or eight solid innings despite being hurt,” Kley said. “We knew Pat (Tschida) was going to keep us in the game after Tony came out. I think we had a diving catch to end one inning and a relay play at the plate that I cut off and threw to Matt at home. We were waiting for a chance to break it open.”

That chance for the Wildcats came in the top of the 10th. Curtis Herbolsheimer started the inning with a leadoff walk, and Nate Tesch followed that up with a single. Ryan Quast then did his job with a perfect sacrifice bunt to move the runners up to second and third with one out.

Despite the strong start to the inning, Winsted found themselves with the bases loaded and two outs as the Islanders decided to intentionally walk Tony Kley. That set up a chance for Joe Kley to be the hero. Coming into the at-bat, Kley was 0-for-3 at the plate, but all he wanted was one more chance.

“I felt comfortable at the plate off him,” Kley said. “He was more of an off-speed right-hander, which was a good change after the hard-throwing lefty. I got an off-speed pitch over the outside of the plate and was able to drive it into the gap to clear the bases.”

Kley’s bases-clearing double gave the Wildcats a 4-1 lead over the Islanders, and then it was Tschida’s time to close things down to complete the win.

“The dugout went nuts and after the inning, I ran into Pat and told him to go shut the door,” Kley said. “This was the reason we drafted him and we needed him to step up.”

With the win, Winsted advanced to the final weekend where their season came to an end in the final eight with a 15-12 loss to eventual runner-ups Sobieski.

Cologne vs. Carver (2017 Crow River Valley League Regular Season)

It was a 23rd birthday to remember for Cologne’s Tim Swanson. Not only did the Hollanders pick up an exciting win, but he also got to play the hero.

Early on, it looked like a rough day for the Cologne Hollanders. It turned into a long day with a sweet finish.

After falling behind 5-1 early, the Hollanders had some work to do. A two-run home run from Anthony Brenner brought the Hollanders within two in the bottom of the eighth, but Cologne wasn’t done there.

With two outs, Kyle Twait drove in a pair with a clutch double, tying the game. What looked like a win for the Carver Black Sox, was actually a game that was just getting started.

With the starting pitchers done for the day, Cologne’s Zach Nelson and Carver’s Mark Ulrich shouldered the load for their teams.

“As I remember, it was a pitchers duel between Zack and Mark,” Swanson said. “Both pitchers were shoving. I think Zach pitched 10 innings only giving up 1 hit, and Mark’s stat line was probably about the same.”

After scoring four runs in the bottom of the eighth, Carver and Cologne matched each other with goose eggs into the 17th inning. It was then the Hollanders broke through.

Kyle Brazil started the bottom half of the inning off with a single, and the Hollanders had the winning run on base. With a chance to win the game, Swanson delivered with a base hit in the gap, scoring Brazil from first and gave the Hollanders the walk-off win to complete the comeback.

“Mark had thrown me high and away fastballs first pitch on my previous three plate appearances,” Swanson said. “When I came up in the 17th with a runner on, I told Pexa I’m taking that first high and outside fastball to the right-center gap. Like the three previous plate appearances, he started me with a high and outside fastball that I drove to the right-center grab scoring Brazil from first. I actually had about two or three other chances to end the game earlier on, but as I said before, Mark was dealing. It was actually my 23rd birthday as well, so I was able to celebrate a little bit after the game too.”

Plato vs. Waconia (2017 Region 7C Tournament)

From the first inning, it looked like something special was about to happen. As Plato and Waconia battled it out in a state qualifier game in the Region 7C Tournament, one guy stood out. Plato’s Adam Prehn wasn’t great. He was perfect.

“I remember in the top of the fourth of that game seeing the leadoff guy come to the plate realizing he had a perfect time through the lineup,” Plato outfielder Kyler Panning said. “That’s been done plenty of times, so you kind of just forget about it. Then, the top of the seventh rolls around and it’s the same scenario, but everyone knows there’s a different sense of urgency. Every pitch could end it and you don’t want to be the guy who ruins it. I remember multiple 3-0 counts and thinking to myself that it was over, maybe he’ll hang on to a no-hitter at least, but he found a way.”

In a 4-0 victory for the Bluejays, Prehn threw a perfect game against one of the top offensive teams in the entire CRVL. He struck out the first two batters of the game, gaining the attention of me and everyone else in the press box today.

After every inning, we all would look at each other knowing what we were witnessing. There was no mention of it to jinx it, but after each inning, we all just looked at each other and smile.

Prehn was dominant all game long against a talented Waconia lineup. The one mistake he made didn’t come back to haunt him as left fielder Kyle Panning made an incredible play early in the game (fourth inning) to keep the perfect game alive.

“As for the catch, I believe it was in the fourth or fifth inning off the bat of (Derek) Martin,” Panning said. “At the time, it didn’t feel as important because of how much game was left and who we were playing. They were a great team and were bound to get a hit and score a run eventually. It was my second game back after spraining my ankle against Waconia in (earlier in the season), so I still didn’t have great speed to track the ball down. I read it right and at the last second I heard either Lang or Pinske yell something, but it was too late. I smashed the side of my head and ear against the top bar across the fence and caught it at about the same time. I fell to the ground, checked my glove to make sure it was still in there and raised it up for the ump to see. I remember Matt (Odegaard) and Dambo (Adam Damman) coming out to check on me, but it wasn’t my head that hurt. It was my ankle that got twisted again as I fell. All was good and in the end, it was just 1/27th of an amazing game by Adam.”

Waconia vs. Green Isle (2018 Region 7C Tournament)

It was the shot that was heard all around Carver County.

State qualifier/elimination games are some of the best games when it comes to the amateur baseball season. With so much on the line, you never know what could happen.

In a battle between the Waconia Lakers and Green Isle Irish, Sam Schiffmann was the hero late in the night.

A 2-0 lead early in the game wouldn’t hold up for good. Green Isle responded with three runs right back, taking their first lead of the game.

After watching Green Isle take the lead, the Lakers wasted no time in getting those runs back. Chris Bullis stayed hot at the plate, driving in his second and third runs of the game to put the Lakers back up 4-3 in the top of the seventh.

Just three outs away from the win, Green Isle wouldn’t go away. The Irish once again scraped together a run, sending the game to extra innings tied at four.

A walk to Ronnie Olson in the top of the 10th gave the Lakers some life. With Schiffmann at the plate, he was looking to learn on his previous at-bats in which he struggled a bit.

“I had had a really bad day at the plate with a couple of strikeouts,” Schiffmann said. “The at-bat before, Twenge struck me out on a high fastball that I wasn’t even close to.”

After a tough at-bat last time around, Schiffman knew what he needed to do this time around.

“When I was down in the count in the next one, I figured he’d throw it again and guessed right,” Schiffman said. “I knew I put a good swing on it and made solid contact, but watching it off the bat was slow motion and rounding third, and looking into the stands with the hundreds of people that came out was a moment I’ll remember forever. We played really well, had great pitching, and were able to beat a really good team.”

Schiffmann’s two-run home run gave the Lakers the lead as they held on for the win to secure a spot in the Class C State Tournament.

Howard Lake vs. Loretto (2018 Region 12C Tournament)

It was a tough season for the Howard Lake Orphans in 2018. Despite that, they once again reached the state tournament as they put their struggles behind them at the right time. After limping into the Region 12C Tournament as the No. 7 seed, the Orphans clinched a spot in the state tournament as they beat the Loretto Larks 3-1 in a state qualifier/elimination game thanks to a gem of a game by ace Mike Dockdendorf. The Orphans were a team that got hot at the right time.

“Three and a half weeks ago, we didn’t even think we’d be at regions,” Orphans manager Mike Gagnon said. “We’re playing our best ball here by far the last three weeks. The young guys are growing up here a bit.”

After Howard Lake scored a single run in the first and second inning, that allowed Dockendorf to do what he does on the mound. Dockendorf scattered 10 hits allowing just one run while striking out four as he was masterful in the big game for the Orphans.

“He was really spent though after seven innings,” Gagnon said about Dockendorf. “He never says he wants a short leash. He had to come in the game before, and that last at-bat was about 11 pitches. He barely finished it, but physiologically, they didn’t want to see him. They would have liked to see him come out.”

Plato vs. Faribault (2018 Class C State Tournament)

State tournaments are always special. That’s why there are so many of those games on this list. If you’ve never experienced an amateur state baseball tournament, you don’t know what you’re missing.

I’ll never forget the game in 2018 for a couple of reasons. Before this game, I just got done doing radio duties with Josh Monahan for the Young America/Raymond game. Things were already running late, so it was decision time. Head home or stay for the nightcap? I think I made the right choice.

The Plato Bluejays came into the tournament as one of the favorites. In their first two games, they scored just runs. They won both games.

A big reason for staying was the opponent Plato faced in their second game of the tournament, Faribault. It was hard to believe that these two teams were meeting this early in the tournament.

Faribault’s Matt Lane and Plato’s Chris Odegaard were the starting pitchers. That’s two of the best pitchers in the state toeing the rubber. That’s worth the price of admission alone.

“Before the game against Faribault, we were already very battle tested against a very good team in Luxembourg,” Plato manager Adam Dammann said. “We found a way to battle in that game and came out on top. We knew the next game against Faribault was going to be a huge defensive battle. The headlines all week were Lane vs. Odegaard. Both of these guys have been to the next level. Both have a long history as well in the amateur baseball world and are name-brands in the game.”

Plato and Faribault were still scoreless entering the ninth inning as Lane and Odegaard dominated on the mound. Like Odegaard, Lane was rolling on the mound and even giving some of the best hitters in the state problems at the plate.

“He can put himself into that pitcher’s position and try to figure out what he would throw and be able to adjust on the fly when he is at the plate batting,” Dammann said about Odegaard. “Chris himself, after that game, said to me that this is the first time in his amateur career where he felt that he had no clue what he was going to throw next. Lane always changed his tendencies every inning. He’s the best pitcher he feels he has ever faced in Amateur baseball. That is a pretty powerful statement coming from Chris Odegaard, who has a lot of baseball knowledge. He said that was one of the most fun and competitive games he has ever been a part of.”

In the bottom of the ninth, it was the Bluejays who finally broke through on a weird play. With runners on first and second with one out, a swinging bunt from Ryan Moriarity was the difference. What looked like it might be an out on an incredible play, quickly turned in favor of the Bluejays as the throw to first took a wild hop and hit the first baseman in the face.

“It is amazing that this game came down to swinging bunt from Ryan Moriarty with Adam Prehn on the basepath at second,” Dammann said. “You could tell that swing caught Lane off guard when he had to go get it. Then the story unfolds from there. The ball thrown into the dirt short of first base, the first baseman, being a former outfielder, loses the ball or misjudges it and it hits him square between the eyes, the first baseman staggering backward, and Moriarty trying to lag out the run and barrels into the first baseman and hitting his knee right into the face/nose of the defender as the first baseman is knocked out from the collision. I have to urgently tell Prehn to put your head down and go home and don’t stop.”

While there was certainly excitement on the end of the Plato Bluejays for winning the game, there was also an eerie feeling in the air as both sides were concerned with Faribault’s first baseman. After checking on him, it was time for celebration, the first of many as the Bluejays would go on to win the Class C state title that year.

“As expected, the game came down to pitching and defense,” Dammann said. “Lane and Odegaard were absolutely immaculate on the mound. I was on the field and in the dugout and it was one of the best games I have ever seen in that competitive nature. Others in the stands also said it was one of the best games they have ever witnessed.”

Young America vs. New Market (2018 Class C State Tournament)

Spoiler alert – the Young America Cardinals won this game. Well, technically they won it twice. It was one of the craziest games over the past few years and it took the stage as part of the 2018 Class C State Tournament.

In the 12th inning, it looked as if the Cardinals had the won game as Brice Panning delivered with a clutch hit. After a leadoff single from Cole Peters, the Cardinals had a chance to walk off. A sacrifice bunt moved Peters into scoring position, and Young America was sitting pretty.

A red-hot Panning delivered the big hit allowing Peters to score easily. At least it seemed that way. Shortly after Peters and the Cardinals thought they won the game, the home plate umpire ruled that Peters did not touch the plate and he was out.

“I was at a loss of thought after the umpire said I never touched home plate,” Peters said looking back on the game. “I’ve never missed home. I was taught to play hard and I always make sure my run counts every time I get to cross home plate.”

To Young America’s dismay, the game went on as the umpire would not reverse his call.

After sending down New Market in the 13th and 14th innings, it was Panning who delivered once again for the Cardinals.

An RBI single from Panning scored Brice Panning, giving Young America a thrilling 4-3 victory in 14 innings to reach the semifinals. It was Panning’s sixth hit of the game, which tied him for a state tournament record.

It was a game to remember for Panning as he technically had not one, but two walk-off hits.

“I had a football game the day before and played a game that night, so I was pretty tired and sore going into the New Market game the next day,” Panning said. “If I remember right I swung at the first pitch most of my hits. The first hit that got called back because of the missed home plate call was a weird feeling because we all celebrated as we won. We ended up still having to play more. The final hit was special because I hit my brother in from second to win.”

Panning’s heroics also brought great relief to Peters who to this day, doesn’t know how he was called out.

“The picture and us securing the win were the only two things that kept me grounded after that game because of the anger and confusion,” Peters said. “To this day, I have no answer for what that umpire saw that led him to call me out other than the New Market coach screaming that I missed the plate.”

Cologne vs. Watertown (2019 Region 7C Tournament)

This one was something else for sure. To this day, if you ask both the Watertown Red Devils and Cologne Hollanders the question of if Zach Nelson was safe or out, you’ll get a different answer. That’s what makes this one stick out so much.

It was one of the craziest plays I’ve seen in a baseball game, and it just proved to be a huge turning point in the game. As the Hollanders hosted the Red Devils as part of the Region 7C Tournament, Cologne’s Zach Nelson had the play of the game, if not the tournament.

While Cologne had a 6-3 lead late in the game, Nelson added an insurance run by making the play of the night.

“What I remember about the game is that we couldn’t take Watertown for granted,” Nelson said. “They always are great competition. (Craig) Pexa and the rest of us knew that we had to come out hot and keep the foot on the gas. Like all teams in the league, we couldn’t take them lightly.”

A three-run lead didn’t seem like enough for Nelson and the Hollanders. That’s why Nelson, a player who puts it all on the line, felt like heeded to make a play.

After a single from Tanner Luebke, Nelson was trying to score to give the Hollanders a bigger lead. The throw to the plate beat Nelson, who went airborne over Watertown catcher Ben Theisen and touched home plate. Nelson was ruled safe on the acrobatic play, and the Hollanders extended their lead to 7-3.

“I usually tend to throw my body on the line,” Nelson said about the play. “When I saw that ball make it through, I already had that thought of not stopping. I’m not the best listener either, so if Pexa told me to stop, I was blowing right by him. Then when I was rounding third, I told myself if I see the ball coming in, I’m going to jump the catcher and I just repeated that constantly before I actually saw the ball. Then after that, I just remember hitting home plate and looking at the umpire calling me safe and mauled by my teammates and fans erupting with cheers. If I had to be honest, it was one of the greatest things I’ve done in my baseball career.”

Cologne would go on to win the game, as well as reach the state tournament for the first time in 47 years after beating Carver in a state qualifier game.

Young America vs. Buckman (2019 Class C State Tournament)

Coming off an impressive run in the Class C State Tournament in 2018, everybody knew who the Young America Cardinals were. They especially knew the name, Josh Lenz.

After bursting onto the scene during the previous state tournament, Lenz was turning heads once again against one of the top teams in amateur baseball. While it ended in a loss for the Cardinals, what Lenz was able to do for his team in a huge game against the Buckman Billygoats was pretty incredible.

In a marathon of a game, Lenz pitched his heart out for the Cardinals in front of a packed stadium. He went 14 innings, allowing just five hits while striking out 14.

“I don’t really know where to start,” Lenz said trying to recall the game. “I do remember it just being a roller coaster of emotions.”

Young America found themselves down 1-0 early after an error came back to haunt them. The Billygoats would go on to extend its lead to 2-0 as the Cardinals had some work to do late in the game.

In the bottom of the seventh, Young America finally got on the board. A hustle play from Isaac Hormann allowed the first run of the game to score for the Cardinals, giving them a little life.

Young America would tie things up in the bottom of the eighth as their leader Matt Mann did what he always does. A leadoff single from Mann put the tying run on base, and it was Barrett Panning who delivered with an RBI single to tie the game at two.

Despite Young America trailing early, Lenz knew he had to keep doing all he could do on the mound to give his team a chance.

“I really just kept telling myself to keep battling even when we were down in the seventh,” Lenz said. “Knowing we were a good team, I knew we were going to battle back and have a chance to at least tie the game. I just had to do my part and get outs.”

Lenz did more than just that. Seven strong innings at the state tournament would have been good enough for almost anyone, but not for Lenz. Once the Cardinals tied the game, he got even better.

“When we tied the game, I remember feeling energized again and ready to throw as many innings as we needed,” he said. “I just kept telling myself don’t give in and give our guys a chance and to just keep going. After my last inning, Adam and I talked and figured it would be best to bring in a fresh arm.”

Lenz’s day finished after 14 stellar innings. After the Billygoats scratched out two runs early on, he retired the last 22 batters he faced as he willed his team into extra innings.

In the top of the 17th inning, it was Buckman that was able to finally breakthrough. Joe Kahl was the hero for the Billygoats as he used his speed on the basepaths to put an end to the marathon. Kahl stole second and moved up to third on a passed ball. With the go-ahead run 90 feet away, Kahl used his speed once again as he stole home to give the Billygoats a 3-2 lead in the top of the 17th inning.

“Just a hell of a baseball play from the runner who took a gamble that ended up working out for them,” Lenz said.

It was a tough way for the season to end for the Cardinals, but it was also another impressive showing by Lenz on the mound. In the two tournament games, he threw 21 innings and had 31 strikeouts. Lenz wasn’t able to record a win as Young America’s first game was a 3-2 win in 12 innings over Isanti.

 

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