Baseball, softball zero emotions in on state
The Minnesota Twins continue to alternate between impressive and hopeless, it seems, but the season has a long way to go. At the high school baseball level, however, playoff time means that every team is playing at a peak.
Double-elimination play gives room for second chances at the sectional level, and there are a lot of compelling reasons for the drama that prevails.
In Section 7 AAA, Duluth Denfeld lived up to West Duluth’s heritage against the traditionally stronger Twin Cities parts of the expansive section, and moved into this week’s climactic portion when the Hunters showed the ability to rally when their backs were up against the wall.
On Saturday, at Hermantown’s field, as the Blue Angels flew overhead, Denfeld trailed Chisago Lakes 3-2 in the top of the seventh but got something going. Brenden Walkowiak came through with a clutch single to knock in the tying run, giving us all the illusion of possible extra innings. Not so fast!
Ben Gibson came up next and also stroked a single, driving in Brody Russell with what proved to be the winning run in the top of the seventh. That put it all on Cody Brown’s shoulders, and while he gave up seven hits in the game, Brown got the jump on Chisago Lakes with a fly ball and ground out before yielding a single, then coaxing a game-ending grounder to third as Denfeld captured a 4-3 battle for survival.
Waiting and watching were the Cloquet Lumberjacks, who had to play the winner, meaning old rivals Denfeld and Cloquet paired right up. The Hunters showed no signs of any fatigue, as they Jantzen Levy pitched out of trouble several times while his teammates got two RBIs from Brad MacDougall and Levy shut down the Lumberjacks 5-1.
If getting there is half the fun, Denfeld got to Tuesday’s final round for a game against North Branch, with that winner advancing to face Hibbing for the championship — although it would take two victories to top the unbeaten Bluejackets.
We care about Section 7 at the AAAA level, too, of course, even though Duluth East and Grand Rapids are the only two schools of sufficient size to play in that bracket, with the remaining six from Cambridge and south. So when East and Grand Rapids met in an early duel between such storied rivals, it was worth attending.
East beat the Thunderhawks 3-1 at East’s field, the former Ordean Field of my youth baseball days. The ‘Hounds got two runs in the last of the first, then padded a tight 2-1 lead with a clinching run in the last of the fifth with a two-out single and double. Jake Dubla knocked in the two runs in the last of the first, and his two-out single in the fifth triggered the final run.
It was not easy, though, because Rapids loaded the bases with one out on a daring bunt single in the top of the seventh, and East had to come up with solid pitching and defense to escape with the victory. Both teams raised their game enough to go on the very next day. East had to head south to play top-seeded Blaine, which had an 18-3 record, while Grand Rapids went home to play an elimination game against Cambridge-Isanti.
Sure enough, both of them came through for the Northland, with East stunning Blaine 2-1 while Grand Rapids eliminated Cambridge-Isanti in a game of once-beaten teams.
East was finally conquered in the match of unbeatens when Forest Lake captured a 3-1 pitchers duel, but Grand Rapids stayed alive by scoring twice in the top of the seventh to take out Anoka 2-0.
That meant Grand Rapids got to take a shot at Blaine in an elimination game Tuesday at Princeton, while East would take on the winner Wednesday. Whatever transpired, it was with great determination that East and Rapids both battled their way to such an extended playoff run.
In AA, the tournament moved into its final games with Esko, Marshall, Proctor and Aitkin still alive, hurtling toward more elimination games before the final two survivors collide Thursday in Superior with the possibility of that final requiring two games.
Same with the final in 7A, where Ely, Silver Bay, South Ridge and Deer River met early this week to narrow down to the Thursday championship at 5 p.m. at Wade Stadium, where there also is room for a second game, if necessary.
In softball, the girls are a week ahead, as usual, with the state tournament returning to Mankato’s Caswell Park where four games will be played simultaneously on the cloverlead shaped field complex.
We don’t have an entry from Up North in AAAA, but Hermantown carries our hopes in AAA, poutting its 19-4 record on the line against Visitation, with both teams 19-4. Winners and losers come right back and play Thursday afternoon, and they play through semifinals Thursday night. Championship will be determined Friday at 1:30.
And Esko takes a run at Class AA, with a 21-3 mark going against Pipestone Area at 24-1. That will be in the lower bracket, while Maple Lake, 24-0, is favored in the upper bracket. Same system plays off from quarterfinals to semifinal winners Thursday, with the title decided Friday afternoon.
Our last hope is in Class A, where Carlton, with six freshmen starting, unseated Cherry and takes a 24-3 record to the tournament, facing New York Milles (22-2) in Thursday’s quarterfinals. That title, also, will be Friday afternoon.
If you have never been to the state softball tournament, it really is like a four-ring circus down in Mankato, where you stand at the center hub of four fields and everywhere you look there is a championship-quality game going on.
It is always impressive how our Northern high school kids can be so competitive with Twin Cities and Southern Minnesota teams who have a several-weeks head start on field conditions with weather.
Besides, it will get you in the mood to go to St. Cloud for the baseball tournament next week.