Prep baseball: After long wait, Windom Area goes back to state
WINDOM -- Twenty-five years ago, if someone had told you that the Windom Eagles would go 26 seasons between state baseball tournament appearances, you would have said he was sniffing too many pine tar fumes.
But the once-mighty Eagles have, indeed, wandered in the wilderness for more than a quarter of a century.
Time was, Windom was synonymous with high school state tournament baseball. Head coach Jack Kelly (tenure 1960-1976) took teams to state in 1970 and 1976. Head coach Dean Jaacks (1977-2002) took the Eagles there in 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987 --five straight years. During those five seasons the Eagles posted records of 19-5, 21-3, 21-2, 21-3 and 18-7. They were state champions in '84 and '85.
In 1988, they lost in the section finals 2-1 to Luverne. Little did anybody know then that that would be the beginning of a lengthy drought.
The drought is over. The 2013 Eagles (13-8) open state Class A tournament competition at 12:30 a.m. Thursday at the Mini Met in Jordan against St. Agnes (13-6). Action continues with semifinal and consolation bracket games on Friday, with the championship game set for Monday at Target Field in Minneapolis.
This year's Eagles state tournament coach is Brad Schlomann, in his 11th year at the helm of the storied baseball program.
The key to getting back to state, he said this week, is his six seniors: Andy Pfeffer, Jacob Johnson, Brandon Thongvivong, Travis Janssen, Collin Lovell and Danny Kneeland.
These "super six" were molded into winners in 2012, when the team recovered from a 2-9 record to finish second in the section tournament. Schlomann challenged his seniors, then, to turn things around. And they did. Now last year's juniors are seniors, and they've managed to maneuver through peaks and valleys, themselves, in 2013.
Windom Area dropped seven consecutive games this year heading into the postseason. But Schlomann said he didn't need to call for a team meeting. He knew he could count on his seniors.
"I never worried about them. They just have it. I could see it," Schlomann said. "They knew they were playing well. They were just losing games."
The seniors agree.
"They were just close losses to good teams. Last year we did bad toward the end of the season and still made a playoff run," said Lovell, a pitcher.
"It's all we've worked for since we were little," said Kneeland, a catcher.
Janssen, a first baseman, credits good old-fashioned hard work from the very beginning of the 2013 campaign. "We all got up at 6:30 at the beginning of the year. We went to the school and weightlifted and took batting practice, showing that we were willing to work and wanted to win," he said.
Schlomann says he doesn't have to push his players to perform. They already know how.
"They really pick each other up. They include everybody," he explained at a Monday morning practice session. "There's no arrogance there. That's just kind of the way they go. And they're all going to be successful in life, every one of them."
Schlomann is not a statistics kind of guy. And neither, apparently, are his players. In fact, on Monday he said none of his ballplayers have even seen their statistics from the 2013 spring season. "I don't know if they even care. The thing we care about is on-base percentage. We don't care how they get there --just that they get there."
But just for the record, Thongvivong leads the club with a .405 batting average. Janssen is batting .358 and Devin Nielsen is at .324. Pfeffer sports a .524 on-base average, with Nielsen at .457, Thongvivong .446 and Janssen .442.
Lovell, a righthander, has pitched 76 innings, walking just 29 and striking out 116. He has an earned run average of 1.93. Thongvivong, another righty, is 2-2 with two saves in 30 innings with a 1.85 ERA.
Thongvivong --who will go on to play baseball at Morningside College --is not only a good hitter and pitcher, but he's a defensive wizard at shortstop that Windom Area can ill afford to be without. He credits his father for his talent.
"We've worked together since I was 5 or 6 years old. Just in our back yard," Thongivivong recalled on Monday.
His father, Seng, came to America at the age of 10 or 12 years old, Brandon explained, but did not play baseball in high school. Instead, he ran track. But he was a baseball fan, and he and Brandon hit ground balls and flies, and practiced throwing, nearly every day for many years.
"We still do it," Brandon said.
Regarding the 2013 Eagles' style, Schlomann puts it thusly: "Through the lineup we just do what we can to manufacture runs."
As a team, they've hit just one home run this year. Their mode of operation is to put the ball in play, take a base when they can, hit-and-run when it makes sense, and generally play aggressively.
In Section 4 champion St. Agnes, the Eagles will face an opponent that appears quite similar to themselves. Schlomann says the Aggies, who won the state tournament last year, like to apply constant pressure on their rivals. They lost a bunch of seniors from last year's team, but the players who remain are good baserunners who like to take the extra base.
The Aggies are seeded No. 4 in the tournament. Windom Area is No. 5.
Schlomann, a fine baseball player himself for Mountain Lake-Butterfield-Odin a couple of decades ago, is not the only Windom Area coach with extensive experience. His assistant, Terry Burmeister, has assisted the Windom program for 28 years. Schlomann served as a volunteer assistant under Jaacks for two years.
"He was disciplined with the kids," Schlomann remembers Jaacks. "You could see the respect they had for him. I would ask him questions. I'd ask, 'Would you hit-and-run in this situation?' He liked the fact that I liked to ask questions, and he loved explaining them."
The former ML-B-O standout admitted that when he took the Windom coaching job, he put pressure on himself to get the team back to the state tournament. Now that he's done it, he says the reason the Eagles are back is because of the people around him --the coaches who went on before, setting the standard; the volunteers in the youth programs; the players; and the assistants who've helped carry the program along.
"Essentially, it comes down to putting good people around you," he said.
Another veteran high school player, Lance Jackson, watched the Eagles do their pre-state tournament drills Monday morning and chatted with Schlomann, Burmeister and a few of the players. It was Jackson who pitched that game in 1988 that Luverne won, 2-1. He remembered.
"You lay it all on the field. There's nothing more you can do."
But for the 2013 Eagles, more memories have yet to be made.
"I'm excited for the kids," said Jackson. "They put in a lot of hard work. ... I just didn't think it'd be this long inbetween."