BLAST FROM THE PAST: Remembering the 1990 Luverne Legion team
LUVERNE -- With just a dozen kids on its roster, Luverne's American Legion baseball team rallied to win the 2nd District championship in early August of 1990 and then -- the following weekend -- competed favorably in the one-class state tournament, finishing fourth among 11 teams in a double-elimination format.
"That was a special season for us," remembers Terry Van Engelenhoven, a 1990 Luverne High School graduate who was one of two ace pitchers on Post 123's staff that summer. "I played on a lot of teams that had more talent on paper, but our 1990 Legion team had the right chemistry and every one of our 12 guys played his role so well, making this team so successful."
Coached by Luverne native Nathan Rud (LHS, Class of 1981), the squad had just three boys -- Van Engelenhoven, Paul Tweet and Matt Gropel -- who had just graduated, while nine others still had a year or two of high school left.
Still, this young team -- which got a late start to its summer schedule, following Luverne's third consecutive trip to the state high school baseball tournament -- put together a remarkable playoff run through the sub-district, district and state Legion tournaments, winning eight of 10 games to finish the summer with an overall record of 16-7.
"This team was coming off a 19-4 record in the spring, which included Southwest Conference, District 8 and Region 2 championships," summed up Rud, who had completed medical school at the Mayo Clinic and was in his second year of residency training in Sioux Falls during the summer of 1990. "They had just finished third in the high school Class A state tournament and I gave them a week off before we started playing our Legion schedule."
In a three-week span, Post 123 played 13 games, winning eight of them -- hardly that impressive of a regular season.
"We had some momentum left from our high school season," recalls Matt Ossenfort (LHS, Class of 1991), who was the other ace of the pitching staff. "It carried over through the summer and we were confident -- in each other -- as the playoffs began."
Starting with sub-district wins over Tyler (6-1) and Pipestone (13-5), Luverne earned advancement to the two-weekend 2nd District Tournament, which featured 12 teams and was played in Redwood Falls. The other teams were Mankato West, Slayton, Winnebago, Worthington, Eagle Lake, Lamberton, Ceylon, Windom, Sleepy Eye, Redwood Falls and New Ulm -- which included current Luverne High School and VFW head baseball coach Mike Wenninger on its roster.
"New Ulm was just awesome, year after year," summed up Mark Lais (LHS, Class of 1991), who manned third base and carried a big stick at the plate for Post 123. "Terry Steinbach (who was catching for the Oakland A's and would later catch for the Twins) had played with them 10 years earlier and he had a couple of brothers who played with them after that. New Ulm was just always so good in baseball."
Luverne was pretty good, too.
The Cardinals had won three consecutive Region 2A high school titles in 1988, 1989 and 1990 and Luverne's VFW squad had played in the 1988 state tournament in Duluth.
"We played a lot of baseball in the summers," recalls Luverne Elementary physical education teacher Corey Nelson, who will be the Cardinals' head girls' basketball coach this winter. "When we played in the VFW state tournament, we played against Ranview, which was mostly Cretin-Derham Hall guys"
One of those Cretin guys was Chris Weinke, who played minor league baseball, advancing to Triple A Syracuse before changing sports and becoming the quarterback for Florida State and winning the Heisman Trophy in 2000. Weinke played in the NFL for both the Carolina Panthers and the San Francisco 49ers.
A decade later, Joe Mauer became Cretin-Derham Hall's next multiple-sport athlete to reach national fame.
Nelson credits long-time Luverne baseball guru Joe Roberts with much of the baseball success enjoyed by the community.
"When we were young, Joe Roberts taught us a lot about baseball," exclaimed Nelson. "He is one of the main reasons we grew to love the game so much. Joe was always around. He ran the summer elementary program, then he was an assistant coach for the VFW and was always there watching us play Legion ball, too."
Van Engelenhoven hits game-winning home run against Eagle Lake
Joining Lais and Ossenfort as members of the 1990 Legion squad from the Class of '91 were Dave Smook, Mark Schoeneman, Troy Buss and Shawn Konz.
Three members of the team -- Nelson, Mickey Sehr and Jeff Ahrendt -- represented the Class of 1992, having just completed their sophomore years of school.
"All 12 guys were important," emphasized Van Engelenhoven, who is a loan officer for Bank of America in Columbus, Ohio. "We played good baseball and were able to win all four of our games over the two weekends of the district tournament, staying away from the loser's bracket."
While Minneapolis Tribune and WCCO Radio personality Sid Hartman does not believe that "chemistry" plays a role in team success, Van Engelenhoven carries a different opinion.
"Our team chemistry on that 1990 Legion team was so strong," he stressed. "We got along so well and each player contributed by doing what they were supposed to in their roles."
Ossenfort, who now lives in LaVista, Nebraska and is the Citizenship Facilitator at Skinner Elementary School in Omaha and is a NCAA Division I baseball umpire, echoed those thoughts.
"We had such confidence in each other," he declared. "When we walked on the field, there was seldom any doubt. We knew we could play against anybody, which helped us play relaxed without any feeling of pressure. We just worked so well together, it was always a complete team effort."
Leading off for Rud was Nelson, the team's quick-footed (and handed) shortstop.
"Corey was like lightning," praised Ossenfort. "He was very fast and quick, allowing him to cover a lot of ground."
Here's the rest of the usual batting order and positions which Rud utilized through the playoff run:
Tweet batted second and played left field, third baseman Lais batted third, followed by Van Engelenhoven (either pitching or playing first base) in the clean up slot, Ossenfort (first base or pitcher) batted fifth, followed by Schoeneman (catcher), Gropel (right field), Smook (second base) and Sehr (center field).
Ahrendt played in the outfield, Buss was a good second baseman, who could also play in the outfield, and Konz was good at the plate and was utilized as a designated hitter.
Van Engelenhoven (4-for-4, home run, four RBIs), Nelson (home run, double) and Schoeneman (three-run homer) paced a 13-hit attack in Luverne's district-opening 12-4 victory over Ceylon on Friday, July 27.
The left-handed throwing Ossenfort pitched the first six innings, with Nelson twirling the seventh.
The next day, Van Engelenhoven took the hill and struck out 13 batters as Post 123 claimed an 8-4 win over Lamberton. Van Engelenhoven blasted a two-run homer in the first inning and later belted a double, while Lais (two runs), Smook and Nelson also each had two hits in Luverne's 11-hit performance.
In the top bracket, Eagle Lake -- comprised largely of Mankato East players -- defeated New Ulm and tangled with Luverne on Friday, August 3.
Luverne jumped out to a 5-0 lead on Eagle Lake and held on for an exciting 9-8 victory with Ossenfort relieving Van Engelenhoven to record the game's final out.
Still in the winner's bracket, without a loss, Luverne would need to beat Eagle Lake again the next day.
They did so -- in dramatic fashion.
Eagle Lake jumped out to an early 4-0 lead, scoring two runs in each of the first two frames.
But, Luverne rallied with a key three-run homer by Sehr -- the No. 9 hitter -- driving in both Ossenfort and Schoeneman and trimming the lead to 4-3.
Eagle Lake, however, plated a trio of runs in the top of the fourth and held a 7-3 advantage before Luverne struck with three runs in the bottom of the fifth.
Tweet and Lais both drew walks and Van Engelenhoven singled off Eagle Lake ace John Landkammer (who had come in to pitch after the walk to Lais), loading the bases.
Ossenfort reached base on a fielder's choice, scoring Tweet.
Schoeneman singled to load the bases again.
Gropel drew a bases-loaded RBI walk, plating Lais.
Smook's RBI single drove in Van Engelenhoven and the score was 7-6.
An inning later, Luverne took an 8-7 lead as Tweet singled, Lais walked and Van Engelenhoven rattled a double off the fence, scoring Tweet to tie the game.
Schoeneman's RBI single plated Lais with the go-ahead run and Luverne fans were going wild with excitement.
"That was such a great game to be a part of," remembered Lais, who later played a year of college baseball in Des Moines, Iowa at Grandview College. "We came back to take the lead and then would have to retake it again later."
Eagle Lake answered with a pair of two-out runs in the top of the seventh and held a 9-8 lead and needed just three outs to force another game.
But, Luverne came back -- again.
Tweet drew a one-out walk and after Eagle Lake recorded the second out, Van Engelhoven -- who had been having a fantastic district tournament came to the plate.
"I was so hoping that Terry was going to do something big," recalled Nelson. "Matt had pitched the whole game and Terry had pitched the day before. I really wanted to win this game because I didn't know if I was confident to pitch against a team as good as Eagle Lake the next day."
Nelson's hope came true -- but not quite as soon as it first appeared.
Van Engelenhoven caught the first pitch -- on the outside corner -- and blasted it the opposite way, over the right field fence.
"It was foul by about five feet," recalled Rud. "But with the count at 1-2, he connected again -- but this one was fair by about 10 feet and was over the fence by about four feet."
Van Engelenhoven's walk-off two-run homer had given Luverne a 10-9 victory and a trip to the Legion state tournament.
"I think that's the only game-winning home run I ever hit," summed up Van Engelenhoven, who hit a school record 17 in one season as a junior at South Dakota State University (Brookings, S.D.) in 1993. "I was just able to take the outside pitch the opposite way and the wind was blowing out in that direction. It was pretty exciting for me and for the team."
"Winning the district was a huge highlight," recalled Lais. "That was an accomplishment."
Luverne wins state-tournament games at Richfield on August 10
Playing at Braemer Field in Edina, Luverne was defeated by Bloomington Gold, 6-2 on Thursday, August 9.
Van Engelenhoven tossed four shutout innings and Luverne took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fifth, as Schoeneman scored on a perfect suicide squeeze bunt by Sehr.
Gropel's double had advanced Schoeneman to third base.
Bloomington took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the frame and then Luverne tied the score in the top of the sixth with three straight singles by Tweet (run), Lais and Van Engelenhoven (RBI). But Rud's squad missed an opportunity to to take the lead as Bloomington turned a double play and ended the inning with a ground out.
Bloomington plated four runs in the bottom of the inning and then shut down Luverne in the top of the seventh.
Moving to Richfield for the second day's action, Luverne had to come through the loser's bracket and did so in style, claiming a pair of victories (3-2 over Little Falls and 9-2 over Richfield) to continue on Saturday as one of just four teams (of 11) remaining.
"The four teams that were left were St. Paul, Duluth and Moorhead -- all big cities," exclaimed Rud. "For us to be up there competing with those big towns was pretty good."
Ossenfort pitched a complete-game three-hitter against Little Falls, allowing just two runs in the bottom of the sixth.
Schoeneman's RBI sacrifice fly scored Lais with the game's first run in the top of the fourth and Post 123 added two more runs in the top of the sixth inning to take a 3-0 lead.
RBI singles by Gropel and Smook scored Lais and Van Engelenhoven, as Luverne loaded the bases with nobody out.
Luverne scored eight runs -- aided by a pair of walks and three errors -- in the top of the sixth inning to claim its 9-2 victory over Richfield.
Nelson pitched three scoreless innings, before Ossenfort came on to twirl the final four and earn the win.
Van Engelenhoven (three RBIs) and Ossenfort (two RBIs) each had two hits to pace Luverne's eight-hit attack.
Duluth scored two runs in each the first, fourth and seventh innings, while Luverne only was able to muster three hits in the game and plate a single run in the bottom of the fifth, as Duluth ended the state tournament run for Post 123 on Saturday, August 11.
Nelson pitched five innings and Van Engelenhoven tossed the final two.
Smook drove in Luverne's only run with an RBI sacrifice fly, scoring Schoeneman, who had singled and moved to third on Gropel's single.
"By Saturday, our arms and our legs were tired." summed Rud. "We had played a lot of baseball in a short time and had battled against some very good teams and more than held our own."
"The whole state tournament was kind of a blur," said Lais. "Everything seemed to happen so fast. But what an experience, playing against those big towns and competing as well as we did."
Duluth beat Moorhead and then lost to St. Paul in the championship. Both teams advanced to play in regional-national tournaments.
"We came close to advancing too," concluded Rud. "The whole summer, especially the playoff run through the district and the games at the state tournament is still a great memory."
Rud appreciated the help and support of his good friend and assistant coach Brad Ahrendt, who drove one of the vans to the games.
"Brad didn't have any coaching experience," said Rud. "But, he picked up a lot that summer and had a great time with this team."
"It was just a great group of guys that really loved baseball," summed up Nelson. "It was so much fun playing with them."
"That summer created so many great memories which we will never forget," said Schoeneman, the team's steady and reliable catcher. "Nate Rud was such a baseball lover and we had so much fun playing together."
Schoeneman, who played with both Sehr and Van Engelenhoven at SDSU, still plays amateur baseball in Brookings.
"I play some first base and DH a little," he said. "But I still catch quite a bit, too."
Schoeneman noted that both Van Engelenhoven and Ossenfort were great pitchers.
"They both knew how to pitch," he recalled. "Terry was really dominant with his overpowering fastball, while Matt -- as a lefty -- was crafty and very effective."
Van Engelenhoven was throwing in the low 90s before a torn ACL knee injury -- second football game of his senior season -- limited his ability to throw with the same velocity.
"I have no regrets, I had a nice career at SDSU and was able to play in the field and bat my last two years, in addition to pitching," Van Engelenhoven said about his injury, which forced him to miss nearly all of his senior seasons of football and basketball.
But he was able to come back and play high school baseball and enjoy a tremendous summer of his favorite sport in 1990 -- along with a dedicated bunch of young men who knew the importance of playing your role and bonded together with the right "chemistry" to create lasting memories -- a real "Blast From the Past."