Marshall takes Cinderella ride to state
It doesn’t matter whether it was in the World Series, or a sandlot field, when you find a baseball game filled to the batting helmets in high drama, you watch it closely, soaking in all the emotion, and store it away to offset all those less-thrilling contests.
This one happened to be located at Spartan Stadium in Superior, one of the gems of Superior High School’s sports complex, an unusual location for the Section 7 championship in Minnesota’s Class AA eliminations. Marshall was facing Aitkin.
The Hilltoppers had beaten Aitkin early in the tournament, then Aitkin had to win every game to get back to the final against unbeaten Marshall. If Aitkin could beat Marshall, they’d have to play another game to satisfy the double-elimination event.
If you didn’t know better, Marshall appeared to be a lean and quick outfit, and you might not realize the Hilltoppers had six sophomores in the lineup. The stocky guy on the mound was not one of them; he was Derrick Winn, a junior infielder and sometimes pitcher.
Aitkin got a run early, but Marshall senior Joey Peters offset that for Marshall, doubling down the right field line to drive in sophomore Ben Pedersen in the second, grounding out to second in the fourth while the go-ahead run scored. And then the teams turned it over to their defenses, which were formidable.
An example came in the last of the fifth. Still 2-1, the Gobblers were trying to rally against Winn, with his good fastball and darting curve. Jeb Sanford smacked hard shot up the middle, but Marshall’s second baseman broke hard toward center field and made a diving, backhanded stab at the ball, then scrambling to his feet and firing to first for the out. The player was wearing No. 22, Maddux Baggs, a sophomore. Sure enough, he is the son of the late John Baggs, the legendary baseball coach at St. Scholastica.
It was a Brian Dozier-type play; Dad would have been proud, and it remained 2-1 through five.
In the top of the seventh, Baggs smacked a one-out single to left and after another infield single, the Toppers looked ready to stretch the lead, but on Peter Hansen’s hit to left, Baggs raced around third headed for the plate, but he was thrown out by an eyelash, and it stayed 2-1.
Last of the seventh now, and Derrick Winn was still pitching. Aitkin’s Caleb Curtiss, a senior, opened with a line drive single to right-center. Winn, who appeared calm all game, seemed to get up to adrenaline overload as the count went to 3-0 on senior Logan Cluff. Winn battled back and got two strikes, but lost Cluff on a walk.
Nobody out, drama building, and Wyatt Kokesh, another senior, also coaxed a 3-2 walk out of Winn. Bases loaded, nobody out. There are a lot of ways for a high school team to hurt its opponent with the bases full and nobody out, but coach Joe Wicklund was sticking with his gritty junior.
Jake Westerlund, yet another senior from Aitkin, came up, but Winn regained his form and struck him out. Bases full, one out, and all Aitkin had to do was get one in to force extra innings, while two would be a walk-off victory.
Wyatt Sanford stepped into the box, another senior on the deep and experienced Gobbler roster. Sanford, who had pitched into the seventh for Aitkin, hammered a hard grounder up the middle. If it goes through, Aitkin wins, but shortstop Peter Hansen lunged left, snagged the grounder, stepped on second and threw to first. Double play.
You can call it a “walk-off double play” if you want, because it ended the game, a 2-1 thriller, and Marshall (18-5) made it to the school’s first Class AA state tournament.
The Hilltoppers will be unheralded and unseeded when they head for Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud to take on No. 2 seed Belle Plaine Thursday. There are more. Hibbing heads for Siebert Field at the University of Minnesota to face St. Cloud Tech in the Class AAA quarterfinals, and Ely heads for Jordan to play Legacy Christian in the Class A quarterfinals at the “Mini-Met.”
Drama awaits all of them, but Marshall, sailing on its maiden voyage into state tournament waters, has a gang of sophomores and a lot of grit that will make this venture something to remember for a lifetime.