More to spring sports than NHL or NBA playoffs

John Gilbert

Alex Riley breaks free for a 40-yard touchdown in a spring exhibition game between UMD and Bemidji State. Photos by John Gilbert.

Ah, springtime in Northern Minnesota. It’s a time for a weird football game with a unique setting at Malosky Stadium. It’s a time for our unique winter, which was compressed into one week of spring, to get on with true springtime, trading in the cold and snow and rain for a couple weeks of mile temperatures punctuated by harsh winds that felt a lot like January.

And it’s a time for regional high school and college baseball and softball teams to take on the nasty weather as much as their opposition for some rare and wonderful games. For those who spend their sports fandom watching pro sports on TV, it’s also been a very unusual spring. The Twins, for one, should be well into their season by now, and possibly the appearance of the Chicago White Sox in the opposing dugout will cause that to happen this week. But don’t bet on it.

All that the Twins have established so far is that they rank at the bottom of the Major Leagues in team batting average and in the ability to produce runs, or hits, while they also have watched their bullpen and defense let leads slip away and become losses.

Fortunately, the White Sox show up just as the Twins finished losing nine of their last 10 games, with a record of 7-13, compared to the once-proud White Sox, who are the only team worse than the Twins in the Central Division, and lost 9 of their last 10 to drag a 3-18 record to Target Field for this week’s series.

The Twins do hold their traditional record of having the most strikeouts in the league, or in all of MLB. For uniqueness, check out the results of the first few days of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs and the NBA playoffs.

There were 10 NBA playoff games played, and six NHL Cup games in the books as of Monday, and if you ever wondered if there’s anything to the cliche about home-ice advantage, or home-court advantage, all 16 of those opening-week games were won by the home team!

My favorite match-up of all those playoff series is the Colorado Avalanche against the Winnipeg Jets, and the series didn’t let me down with its opening game that wound up 7-6 for the Jets in Winnipeg, after a crazy first period that went 3-3 and saw the teams trade three goals in the span of 1:06.

This week, we also have the NFL draft, when we all will be vitally interested in the Vikings choice with the No. 11 pick overall, or whether they will trade up to improve that.

My choice for them to form the most important building block in their new-look offense would be for them to draft Oregon’s Bo Nix. With a half dozen or more viable choices out there, Nix is not ranked among the top three or four, but, because I’m a big fan of watching the Ducks play, I watched Nix on several occasions when he showed all the tools needed to be a big-time pro success.

He is smart, quick reacting, can run out of trouble when needed with sudden speed bursts, and throws absolute bullets right on target, even in congested areas. He picks the right target and delivers the ball with precision as well as needle-threading accuracy. Forget the rest of those guys with the glamorous and flashy media ravings — pick Nix and let us enjoy a decade of Vikings excellence.

There is a large gap between the public emphasis on UMD football and Saint Scholastica softball, two sports that briefly cross each other’s pass every spring. With UMD’s football program, a month of long, tough spring practices annually concludes with the annual spring game, in which coach Curt Wiese separates his players into two units, and contrives some odd rules before sending them out on Malosky Stadium’s turf to challenge each other in controlled offense and defense.

But this year, Wiese arranged an intriguing spring exhibition game — also totally controlled — between the Bulldogs and the Bemidji State Beavers. If you went back three years, this would seem like a silly exercise, because UMD had won 16 consecutive games against the Beavers.

Junior quarterback Jacob Eggert got a pass over the Bemidji State defense in UMD's unique spring game against the Beavers.

Ah, but in those most recent three years, Bemidji State has sprung three surprises to beat the Bulldogs all three years. The biggest reason for that was a quarterback named Brandon Alt, who led Bemidji State to the top of the Northern Sun Conference, at UMD’s expense.

Last season, UMD made a stirring second-half rally, scoring the only 14 points of the fourth quarter, to lose respectively 38-31. At halftime it was 28-10 for Bemidji State, and Alt was 14-20 for 212 yards and two touchdowns. For the game, he was 19-26 for 271 yards and the same two TDs. But Alt, who had baffled the Bulldogs for four seasons was given the second half off, after igniting the Beavers to a 19-5 edge in first downs and a 212-20 edge in passing yards by halftime.

After last year’s game, UMD coach Curt Wiese said, “I won’t be sorry to see him graduate.” Well, he is gone, while UMD has returning junior quarterback Kyle Walljasper. But in the prepared plan for the scrimmage, Wiese held Walljasper out, along with several other starters, and used the game to give the prominent back-ups a chance to show off UMD’s depth and give those back-ups the chance to shine.

Jacob Eggert started at quarterback and was ably relieved by A.J. Boarman. Both looked good. And Alex Riley broke loose for several impressive runs, including a 40-yard touchdown run. Meanwhile, Bemidji State doesn’t appear ready to ease off while finding a new quarterback or two.

The Beavers spotted the Bulldogs a couple early scores, and then they started burning UMD’s defensive backs for some dazzling passing plays and long touchdowns. The rule was, nobody would keep score, so nobody every announced the scoring, and the big scoreboard kept quiet.

Someone who DID keep score, however, divulged that Bemidji State had outscored the Walljasper-less Bulldogs 41-27. It looks like UMD has found some valuable depth players, and can lead into this fall trying to tighten up their pass defense. But it also looks as though Bemidji State liked the feeling of being at the top of the NSIC and intends to score enough to stay there.

The Twin Ports is fortunate to have Division II baseball and softball teams, while Saint Scholastica offers Division III baseball and softball of high quality, and Wisconsin Superior also battles competitively in baseball and softball at Division III. The difference there is UWS plays in the Upper Midwest Conference, while Saint Scholastica moved into the more prestigious — and to0ugber — Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

It’s been difficult for the Saints to establish much of a foothold in the MIAC, but that doesn’t mean they are not competitive. Look at last Sunday, when Macalester came to Kenwood Park to face the Saints in a doubleheader. You can’t get more competitive, or more entertaining, that the first game, when Mac beat the Saints 11-10. The Scots had 14 hits and one error, the Saints 13 hits and three errors.

Saint Scholastica sophomore right-fielder Payton Lang delivered one of her two hits  in the 11-10 marathon loss to Macalester.

The Saints got off to a strong start when Aislind Dail socked a 3-run hoe run in the second inning, followed by a 2-run single by Grace Hadlich for a 5-0 lead. Emma Bolin made it 7-0 with a 2-run single in the third. But then the Scots came back, with tw in the fourth and seven in the fifth to vault to a 9-7 lead. The Saints countered with three in the last of the fifth to regain the lead at 10-9, but the Scots scored twice more in the top of the sixth to claim an 11-10 lead.

The teams then turned defensive to hold that 11-10 score to the finish. In the second game, Aryn Blumenthal stifled the Saints with a mix of pitching, while Macalester scored four times in the top of the second. The Scots added two more in the fourth, and put it away with three in the sixth, while Blumenthal threatened to throw a no-hitter until the sixth, when Kari Breuer doubled and Tadya Lind singled her home — the Saints only two hits in a 9-1 loss.

It was an exhausting afternoon for both teams, although Mac left the field in considerably higher spirits. In other MIAC news, hockey fans might remember when Don Roberts led Gustavus Adolphus to the standards of a dynasty, which was about the same time, 25 or 30 years ago, when a fellow named Shawn Walsh lifted Maine to national prominence in Division I. Brett Peterson replaced Roberts, but the Gusties have fallen on tough times, failing to finish higher than fifth in the MIAC since doing so in the 2019-20 season.

Peterson announced he was stepping down as Gustavus hockey coach, and after an intriguing search, Gustavus has selected Tyler Walsh as his replacement. Walsh is the son of the late and legendary Shawn Walsh, and grandson of Ron Mason, for whom the CCHA’s Mason Cup is named. Tyler Walsh spent the last six years as assistant coach and recruiting supervisor at Colby College, a legendary small college in Maine. He will be an interesting fixture in the MIAC at Gustavus.