AMATEUR BASEBALL: Wilmont, Jackson ready for state tournament
WILMONT -- Riding the momentum of a high-scoring Region 13C playoff victory over Pipestone to clinch a berth in this weekend's state amateur baseball tournament, the tradition-rich Wilmont Cardinals will play the Loretto Larks this evening (8 p.m.) at Joe Faber Field in St. Cloud.
"We had a real good practice Wednesday, the guys were hitting the ball well," declared third-year Cardinals' manager Todd Rogers, who played for Wilmont for about a dozen years from the early 1980s through the early '90s.
"We hit pretty good through most of our playoff run and we're hoping that continues against a good Loretto team, which also has a solid baseball tradition."
The Larks, who had a fine summer in the North Star League (14-6), are the No. 3 seed from Region 12C.
Two of Loretto's top players are outfielder Tyler Maher and infielder Kent Koch, each of whom have hit for the cycle in a game during the past three seasons.
Koch had a single, double, triple and home run in a game during the 2010 season when he was named the North Star's Most Valuable Player.
Maher, who is having an outstanding season this year, had his game with a hit of each kind last year.
Both Koch and Maher are 25 years old, but the Larks have a veteran 38-year-old outfielder/catcher by the name of Eric Schutte, who has had a brilliant career for Loretto, including league MVP selection in 1998 and hitting for the cycle in a 2007 game.
Loretto's top two pitchers this season have been right-handers Adam McGrane and Nick Koch.
The Larks also have a pair of sons of former Minnesota Twins on their roster, as 22-year-old outfielder Luke Steinbach and 18-year-old pitcher/infielder Ryan Tapani have contributed to Loretto's success.
Terry Steinbach, who is from New Ulm, enjoyed a lengthy Major League Baseball career as a catcher for both the Oakland A's and the Twins, while Kevin Tapani was a starting pitcher for the New York Mets before joining the Twins in 1988.
"Chances are those two guys (Steinbach and Tapani) are good players," said Rogers, who has two sons (Stuart and Blake) and a nephew (Lucas Henning) playing for Wilmont.
Just 14 players on Wilmont's roster this summer, but the Cardinals have boosted their pitching staff with a trio of draftees --Thomas Albrecht (Heron Lake Lakers), Isaac Dolan (Milroy Irish) and Max Zwart (Hadley Buttermakers).
Dolan and Zwart were chosen after the regional tournament and will join the Cardinals for the first time tonight.
Albrecht, however, has played a key role for Wilmont in the team's last three playoff series, including a complete-game gem in a 9-2 victory over Pipestone in Game 2 of the state-tournament deciding matchup.
Albrecht had earlier pitched a complete game --with 13 strikeouts -- in a 3-2 win over Jackson in Game 2 of that series, the Cardinals only win.
"He's been a great addition," praised Todd Rogers about Albrecht's contributions. "Tom pitched very well, getting us two important wins in the playoffs."
Throughout the season, Wilmont's ace on the mound has been Justin Saufley, who has an amazing strikeout to walk ratio of 111-14 this summer in 82 innings.
Saufley, who has a 7-2 record with an outstanding 1.42 ERA, will likely get the nod as Wilmont's starter tonight.
Steven Kremer, who has a team-leading batting average of .458 (54-for-118), will be behind the plate.
The left-handed hitting Kremer also leads the Cardinals in both RBI (37) and runs (39), while smacking five home runs, a team-best four triples and a team-leading 12 doubles this summer.
The ever-versatile Blake Rogers, who had a key hit and scored three runs in Wilmont's state-clinching 11-5 win over Pipestone Aug. 12, is batting .387 (24-for-62) and can play multiple positions in the field.
Joe Ahrens (.344), Nick Ahrens (.338), Jesse Teerink (.327), Saufley (.321) and Jay Scheidt (.321) are also hitting over .300, while Henning --four home runs, 26 RBI --sports an average of .299.
"We've got quite a few guys that can hit the ball," summed up Todd Rogers. "We need a bunch of them to get 'hot' at the plate the same night."
Brandon Schroeder, Adam Diekmann, Nate Stoll, Stuart Rogers, Ryan Swanson and Tanner Loosbrock have also each contributed solid all-around play for the Cardinals this year, helping keep the Wilmont tradition strong.
This is the eighth state-tournament trip for the Cardinals, including the seventh in the past 12 years.
After qualifying in 1969, Wilmont earned advancement in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010.
Loretto is also playing in its eighth state tournament, having qualified in 1969, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1997, 2009 and 2010.
Tenth trip for Bulls, who played in six straight from 1995-2000
Jackson defeated Wilmont in regional action in early August, clinching its first trip to the state tournament since 2008.
The Bulls, however, were a perennial state-tournament entrant in the late 1990s.
After earning its first trip in 1993, Jackson qualified six straight years, from 1995-2000.
The Bulls also advanced in 2005.
"Quite a few of us were on the 2008 team," said Jackson player/manager Blaise Jacobsen, who has been the team's long-time starting catcher. "We've got some younger guys who will be playing for the first time, but we have some veterans, too."
Jacobsen, who dislocated his left elbow in a collision with a teammate near home plate in the Bulls' 5-3 decisive Game 3 victory at Wilmont July 27, has played in six previous state tournaments --four with Jackson ('96-98, '08) and a couple with Blue Earth when he was drafted, as a catcher, off of Lake Crystal's team in the early 2000s.
The Bulls will tangle with the Winsted Warriors at St. Cloud's Dick Putz Field at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the tournament's first round.
The Warriors -- who were edged by Fairmont, 7-6, in a 12-inning thriller at Glencoe in last year's Class C State Tournament -- have a very rich baseball tradition, including a trio of consecutive top three finishes in Class A (equivalent to Class C today) state tournaments from 1948-50.
Winsted won the tourney in '48, finished third in '49 and second in 1950.
The Warriors made an early trip in 1935 and have now qualified four years in a row and seven times in the past nine seasons, missing only in 2004 and 2008,
"Winsted has a good team, with very good pitching," summed up Jacobsen, who said his own playing status for Saturday is questionable.
"I am still a bit cautious when I swing (concern about his elbow). It doesn't feel quite right. I like to snap my wrists and be aggressive at the plate."
Tom Hady and Ryan Rasche have done the bulk of the pitching for the Bulls this summer and, along with veterans Andy Wolf, Pat Rients, Jason Cook and Caleb Rossow all played with Jackson in the '08 state tourney.
Winsted, which plays in the Crow River Valley League, is the No. 3 seed from Region 7C and sports an overall record of 21-14 this season.
Tony Kley, the league's MVP in 2009, had a remarkable all-around season this summer. He led the CRVL in hitting with an outstanding .493 average (35-for-71) and drove a team-high 27 runs.
On the mound, Kley has struck out 93 batters, while delivering an incredible .084 ERA over 64 innings. The right-handed ace has allowed just 11 walks, 24 hits and 11 runs this season.
Tony's brother, Joe, finished third in hitting in the CRVL this summer with a batting average of .455. He won league MVP honors in 2008.
Josh Anthony, MVP of the CRVL in 2011, is a third all-around fine player for the Warriors, both as a hitter and pitcher.
Winsted's pitching staff has a combined ERA of 2.09 this summer, which is the best in the Crow River Valley League.
"We'll have to be ready to play, that's for sure," summed up Jacobsen. "We're looking forward to playing baseball, that's what we love to do."