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Luverne looks to keep rolling at state tournament

LUVERNE -- After rallying back from a 2-0 series deficit against the Jackson Bulls with three straight victories in the Region 13C playoffs, the Luverne Redbirds are a confident bunch as they prepare for the Class C state amateur baseball tournament.

Luverne, champion of Region 13, opens the tournament with a first-round game against Princeton Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. in Norwood. Princeton is the runner-up out of Region 1.

The Redbirds claimed the top seed out of the region with a 7-4 victory over Fox Lake, which plays Region 1 champion St. Francis in the game right before the Luverne-Princeton contest.

Barry Shelton, in his fourth year as the Redbirds manager, said his team is approaching the tournament with the same mindset it has had all season-long.

"We know if we do the things we've done all year -- pitch well and play defense -- we'll be able to compete with any team up there," Shelton said. "Pitching and defense have been our staples, and hopefully, we'll have both working Sunday."

One of the question marks for Shelton and the Redbirds entering the season was how well the team could hit.

"I thought we could be one of the top three teams in the Gopher League this year if our sticks came around," Shelton said. "Our guys have responded very nicely and came up with some key hits in clutch situations."

Everything came together for the Redbirds in the final three games of the region series against Jackson. After winning Game 3 by a wild score of 17-10, Jared Pick and Kent Woelber delivered pitching gems in Games 4 and 5 to get the Redbirds into the state tournament for the first time since 2001.

Shelton points to a nice blend of veteran leadership and youthful talent as another key to the success of the 22-11 Redbirds.

"We have a nice mesh of older and younger players -- guys who all enjoy competing and playing the game of baseball," Shelton said. "We know each other well and do whatever we can to compete well in every game."

The two players Luverne selected for the region playoffs were Woelber and Matt Oye from Pipestone. With their additional pick for the state tournament, the Redbirds took Pipestone's Dan Morrison.

All three players are quality pitchers and hitters. Woelber and Oye made their presence known throughout the series with Jackson, while Morrison adds to the crop of pitchers available to Shelton.

Oye stepped into the third spot in the batting order and took over the starting catching duties from Terry Eernisse -- who went down with a hamstring injury in the Gopher League playoffs. Oye also started on the mound and went 6 2/3 innings in Game 2, a 6-2 loss to the Bulls.

Woelber turned in a complete-game gem in leading the Redbirds to the clinching 5-2 victory in Game 5. He was also intentionally walked twice in that game, including once in the second inning -- evidence of the type of hitter he is.

"Kent and Matt have been so important for us in the past six games," Shelton said. "Dan will also help us, as he is a left-hander who throws hard and has a really good pickoff move. He also has brings a good stick to our club."

While the trio of A's are welcome additions for the Redbirds, the cornerstones of the team are the Luverne athletes.

Pick, the ace of the pitching staff, has an 8-3 record with a pair of saves and a minuscule 1.79 earned run average. He has fanned 125 batters in 80 2/3 innings, an average of over 1.5 batters per inning.

He struck out 15 batters in 7 2/3 innings in Game 1 of the region series, which Jackson won 3-0. Pick's complete-game effort in Game 4 was key as the Redbirds rallied for a 3-2 victory.

As a team, Luverne's pitchers have charted 276 strikeouts in 255 innings and have held opponents to a .195 batting average.

Tony Sandbulte (second baseman) and Jake Studer (centerfielder) are the first two hitters in Luverne's lineup and provide a spark offensively and defensively. Studer has scored a team-best 27 runs.

First baseman Jeff Sehr leads the team with a .416 batting average and came up with some big hits against Jackson out of the cleanup spot. He also has a team-best 19 RBIs.

Shortstop James Fisher (16 RBIs) and third baseman Rob Fodness have provided solid play on the left side of the infield, while Tyler Reisch has manned right field, and Pick plays left field when he doesn't pitch.

Eernisse (.342 batting average) is expected back in the lineup for Sunday's game, as he will be the designated hitter for Pick.

Adam Kurtz (4.26 ERA in 63 1/3 innings), Andrew DeBoer and Wyatt Cote are among the other Redbirds on the roster who have contributed this summer.

Meanwhile, Princeton comes in with a team batting average of .320 and features the same type of experience and youth mixture that Luverne exhibits.

The teams also have a history of playing each other in the state tournament. Luverne won a 2-1 game over the Panthers in 1999 before Princeton beat the Redbirds 5-4 in 2000, a year the Panthers went on to finish second place.

The 27-6 Panthers, who play in the Eastern Minny Central League, have two players hitting .470 or higher in Jesse Zimmer (.476) and Tony Stay (.475). Zimmer also has 12 home runs and 44 RBIs, while Stay has nine home runs and 49 RBIs.

Josh Ludwig (10-2, 60 Ks) and Brandon Knoll (7-1, 88 Ks) appear to be the pitching aces for Princeton, as they both feature ERAs under 3.00 in 88 and 78 innings pitched, respectively, and have completed four games each.

Shelton knows if his team can play to its potential, it has a shot to go deep into this year's tournament.

"After we fell down 2-0 to Jackson, we stepped it up because we didn't want our season to be done," Shelton said. "Now, we have to do the same thing."

Pick will pitch against Princeton, and Shelton says he has a lot of confidence in the left-hander.

"We always feel comfortable with Jared on the mound," Shelton said. "He's been our ace all season, and we're going to go with him for as long as we can."

The first three rounds of the 32-team tournament are single elimination. If Luverne wins Sunday night's game, it will play next Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in Norwood against either Wolf Lake or Cannon Falls.