Springtime - time for the kids, and the Cup
After all the snow and recurring signs that winter is not anxious to leave us alone, it becomes a project to chase around and find sporting events before our late-starting and early-ending spring season decides it’s gotten past the former and is now setting its sights on the latter.
So I set out for Two Harbors, with the intention of getting a chance to see the Marshall high school baseball team, which rode last spring’s Cinderella carriage all the way to the state tournament. With most of its team returning, I knew they were loaded, and Two Harbors might give them a test.
I know it’s been a while since they built the new high school in Two Harbors, but it wasn’t until I drove into town that I realized I had no idea where it was. After driving around the likeliest areas for a while, I asked directions and got a pretty general idea where to go. Once I located the school, finding the baseball field was another challenge.
Circling the building, I found a parking lot and parked. Grabbing my trusty camera, I started off down the new and winding sidewalk, which went south, and then east, and I could see the field ahead. Ah, but it was the football field, and a track practice was going on. I noticed the sidewalk circled around the end and headed off toward the woods. I followed it, and, sure enough, another couple of kinks and there it was.
So I missed an inning. In the top of the first, junior Maddux Baggs, an exceptional second baseman last year but shifted to shortstop this season, had led off the game with a single, stole second, and made it 1-0 on a single. Looked like a good pitching duel, but Marshall’s Peter Hansen was in command on the mound. He has a live fastball, and a deceptive curveball, or slider, and he mixed them well.
In the top of the second, Hansen struck out the side. And he did it on 10 pitches. It was either 9 strikes and one ball, or 9 strikes and one questionable call. In either case, when Baggs came up again in the top of the third, he ripped a double to left-center, then stole third. After a strikeout, Derrick Winn walked, and Ben Pedersen hammered a hit that drove in two more runs.
Baggs, the son of the late St. Scholastica coaching icon John Baggs, doubled again to left. When it was over, Baggs was 4-for-5 with three doubles, stealing three bases and scoring three runs. Six other Hilltoppers had two hits each, and Hansen went 5 innings, yielding 2 runs on 5 hits, walking 2 and striking out 10.
With that one no longer in doubt, I headed for the parking lot. I knew there were several other good games going on simultaneously, including Esko against Denfeld at Wade Stadium. Long way away, but I had time.
When I got there, I realized it was softball, not baseball, but that was fine because both Esko and Denfeld are strong in softball. Esko, however, had Emilee Wilson pitching.
The Eskomos took advantage of a handful of Denfeld errors, as well as a half-dozen hits and seven walks by Caitlin Schneeweis and whipped the Hunters 6-1.
Wilson took care of business herself, overcoming a yield of 5 hits and 3 walks with 10 strikeouts, and she also drove in 2 runs and scored 2 more herself. There is nothing that can duplicate the effort and unpredictability of high school sports, especially now, as the teams in the North are hurtling to make up for lost games by playing virtually every day to get ready for upcoming sectional playoffs.
Stanley Cup chase keeps getting better
Much as we all love high school and college hockey, this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs prove that when National Hockey League players play up to their full potential against another team doing the same, the results can be total entertainment of the highest order.
Thursday night, Nashville will play Winnipeg in a Game 7 that has been giving me chills since Game 6 in Winnipeg. The Jets, who finished off the Wild in five games in the first round to assert their overall strength and skill level as Canada’s best NHL team, did it by battering the Wild physically, but not really outclassing them until the decisive Game 5.
When the playoffs started, I declared Nashville as the best team, and therefore my pick to win the Cup. It is interesting now, but I also said I really liked Washington to break through its long years of playoff doldrums and perhaps get to the finals.
Now that the tournament has evolved to this point, Thursday night’s game is an absolute tossup. Nashville played a game at full bore and full intensity to silence Winnipeg when the Jets could have ended the series with a Game 6 victory. As that game progressed, you could feel the pressure shift from Nashille to Winnipeg for Game 7.
The Predators got strong games from everybody on their roster, and Filip Forsberg proved once again why he is one of the NHL’s truly elite players. Leading 1-0, he made a sensational individual effort to barge away from a checking defender and get to the net to score to make it 2-0. Forsberg scored again in the third period on one of those trick-shot moves where he pulled the puck from front to back between his own legs, reached his stick back through his legs to regain control, and flicked in a shot to make it 3-0. Viktor Arvidson’s second goal, into an empty net, secured a 4-0 ouitcome that left the exuberant all-white-wearing Jets fans absolutely without exuberance.
Still, Game 7 is a tossup. The best thing about it is that whichever team wins will be a valid threat to win the Cup. But they will first have to get past a Vegas Golden Knights team that is defying every rule of hockey, and possibly gravity, to advance as a first-year expansion team without any stars — except goaltender Marc Andre Fleury — and is now one series away from playing in the Cup final as the West’s representative. Erik Haula, who never would have gotten a chance to be a front-line player for the Wild, emerged with the clean slate every player had and scored 29 goals for the Knights. You can’t pull against that team.
Meanwhile, out East, Washington indeed broke its jinx and beat the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a scintillating 2-1 game decided when Alex Ovechkin flung a pass that sprung Evgeny Kuznetsov for a semi-breakaway. He pulled away just enough to make a late cut, right to left, and as goalie Matt Murray started to move with him, Kuznetsov steered his shot between Murray’s legs for the winner.
That game was time-capsule material. Both teams played hard, possibly their hardest, and there was no cheap, or chippy stuff. There was no time for it. The incredible thing is that Washington has made a tradition of not beating Pittsburgh, and had earned home ice, only to drop Game 1 to the Penguins before roaring back and overrunning the Cup champs, right in Pittsburgh.
I find the Caps a big favorite over Tampa Bay, buit don’t assume anything. Tampa Bay appeared to have little or no chance against the mighty Boston Bruins, but in a display of how to stand up to a physical battering, the Lightning came back swept the Bruins into summer vacation. Tampa seemed an ulikely winner, but they hustled and scrapped and kept finding a way to win.
It’s one of those rare years where there isn’t a huge favorite to cheer for or against, and there isn’t really a team left to hate. All we can do is make sure you’ve got the big screen set up, and prepare to be entertained in a way that sports, especially pro sports, can rarely achieve. This will be big time. Enjoy.