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Legion baseball: Luverne bringing it home for state tournament

ZACH HACKER/DAILY GLOBE Luverne’s Josh Slieter fields a chopper during practice in Luverne. American Legion Post 123 hosts this year’s Division II State Tournament and will open play at 7 p.m. tonight against LaCrescent at Redbird Field.

LUVERNE — The Luverne American Legion Post 123 baseball team will be on somewhat unfamiliar ground tonight when it takes the field at the Division II state tournament.

That new surrounding — Redbird Field in Luverne.

“They’ll be ready to play baseball,” Luverne coach Barry Shelton said of his team. “They’re excited for this. It will be sort of a homecoming for us. We’ve only had one game on our home field this season.”

The monsoon-like rains and floods that followed that left much of southwest Minnesota underwater in mid-June wreaked havoc on the Luverne’s home ballpark. In the days after the flood, water was still rushing over the outfield fence, leaving Redbird Field looking more like Redbird Lake. When the water finally subsided, the field was covered in silt and rendered unplayable. The then-displaced Post 123 squad was forced to play most of its home games in Valley Springs, S.D.

In a normal year, once the silt had been scraped off of the field, new grass seed would have been planted and play would not have resumed until the following spring. With the Division II state tournament scheduled to be played in Luverne, the city made it a priority to have the field ready to host.

“The city was amazing with getting the field ready,” Shelton said. “They took a whole week and scraped all of the silt off. About two weeks later they laid sod and now, three weeks later, we’ll be able to play on it. The (city) council and public works got together to make it happen because they didn’t want these games to go elsewhere.”

Tuesday night, the field wasn’t quite ready for Post 123’s practice as the new sod was still being treated. Shelton said he hoped to have his team go through a light workout there on Wednesday, but the first real action it will see on its home diamond in nearly two months will be at 7 p.m. tonight when it battles La Crescent — the winner of District 1.

Needless to say, Luverne is excited to have a chance to not only play at the state tournament, but also just play on its home field again.

“I would describe it as ‘giddiness,” Shelton said. “When we told them the field would for sure be ready in time, they were just like, ‘Yes. We’re gonna play on our home field.’ They asked me if we could play on it tonight (Tuesday.) We couldn’t quite yet, but I think tomorrow we’re gonna try to practice on there a little bit.”

Home park or not, Luverne has its work cut out for it. La Crescent comes in as a perennial powerhouse in American Legion baseball, highlighted by the fact it enters the 2014 state tournament as the defending Division II state champion. Win or lose, Luverne is guaranteed at least two games. A win against the current crown-wearers would match it up in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against either District 8 champion International Falls — a community that has seen a growth in baseball success over the past couple years — and District 2 champion St. James, which ousted Luverne from the district tournament last weekend, beating Post 123 18-8. If they lose, they would play the loser of that game at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in an elimination game.

This marks the first appearance in the state tournament for St. James in 46 years.

On the other side of the bracket, Plato, which hails from the Glencoe-Silver Lake school district, comes in as the District 3 champs and is a team that qualified for the Class AA state tournament in the spring. District 9 champion Dillworth will open the tournament against Plato at 9:30 a.m. today. Osakis — a team Shelton said he saw play in its District 7 championship game — boasts three good pitchers and will be a tough out. Foley, which comes in with a relatively small squad, will take on Osakis at noon today.

Luverne, which received an automatic bid to state as the host team, might not have the “District Champion” title to hang its hat on as the state tournament begins, but Shelton is still confident it is capable of making a run. That said, it will have to play better than it did last time out.

“If we play defense like we have been and pitch like we did last week, it could be a long tournament,” Shelton said. “But if we play like I know we can, we could be right there with any of these teams. We could be a contender too.”

Although the district tournament didn’t mean a whole lot to Post 123 seeing as they already knew they’d be playing at state, Shelton said he needs to see more fire out of his team if it is to recover from what he said was a “really ugly game” against St. James. All of the other intangibles are there as the entire 13-man roster will be there despite some of them having to come home early from a football camp at Dakota State University. And Shelton certainly doesn’t expect Luverne to be rattled by the bright lights of the state tournament.

“They don’t go off too far on any one plane as far as excitement,” he said. “They just stay pretty even. A lot of them have played in the football section finals or at the state hockey tournament, so they know what the big stage is like.”

Zach Hacker

Zach is the Daily Globe sports reporter. He has previously been a sports editor at both the Waseca County News in Waseca, Minn., and The Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas. He is originally from New Richland, Minn., and now lives in Worthington with his dog; a beagle-corgi mix named Homer. In his spare time he enjoys spending time with family and friends, pontooning on St. Olaf Lake and watching professional and collegiate sports.

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