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State baseball: Luverne hopes to knock off No. 1

Luverne Cardinals pitcher Reed Skattum throws a pitch during a throwing session at Red Bird Field Tuesday in Luverne.1 / 2
Luverne baseball coach Mike Wenninger throws a pitch during batting practice in preparation for the State Class AA baseball tournament.2 / 2

ST. CLOUD -- When faced with the daunting task of taking on the No. 1 team in the land, many teams have balked and given up hope before the game was even played.

However, in a few rare instances, there have been teams that have shrugged off the mantel of the "underdog" and upset the top-seed.

At this year's Class AA Minnesota State Baseball tournament, the Luverne Cardinals hope to be that team and take down the top-seeded St. Cloud Cathedral Crusaders when the two squads do battle at 10 a.m. today at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud.

"We are the underdogs right now," Luverne second baseman Jonny Solma said. "We have to play with confidence and we just can't play scared because they are the better team. You have to make your plays and get out of there with the 'W.'"

Luverne coach Mike Wenninger believes all the pressure to win is on St. Cloud Cathedral.

"I think it puts more pressure on them than it does on us," Wenninger said. "We are unseeded and our expectations are to play our best. I think that more pressure lies on the No. 1 seed to beat an unseeded team."

If the Cardinals are to stand a chance to knock off the Crusaders, they will need to play errorless baseball and string together hits in crucial moments.

"We can't make errors and we need to have good pitching as well as good hitting," LHS pitcher/first baseman Reed Skattum said. "We have to have confidence that we can beat them and play our game."

St. Cloud Cathedral, which has made 17 trips to the state tournament to date, features a balanced offense and a strong pitching staff.

"They have tradition and consistency as a team," Wenninger said. "They have a balanced lineup and we know they have a good pitching staff as well. They also have speed in their lineup and put the ball in play a lot."

The Crusaders also have the advantage of playing the first two rounds of the state tournament in their hometown and will have the crowd behind them throughout the game.

"It is on their home field, so it is what it is and you have to take advantage of what you can," Wenninger said. "We hope to at least play our brand of baseball and keep ourselves in the game."

Despite all of St. Cloud Cathedral's abilities, Wenninger knows his team has what it takes to give the Crusaders a run for their money.

"We have a nice mismatch of right-handed and left-handed batters," Wenninger said. "We have had five or six guys throwing for us over the season. Hitting has been constant and defense has been decent. Being able to piece those elements of the game together is what has kept us playing this far."

The mantra for the Cardinals' pitching staff is to throw strikes and make the Crusaders work to get on base.

"We have to mix up our speeds as a pitching staff and get ahead in the count," Skattum said. "We also need to throw strikes and work both the inside and outside parts of the plate."

Should St. Cloud Cathedral make contact, Skattum believes his defense can make the plays needed to get outs and close out innings quickly.

"You just have to trust your defense, because, obviously, (St. Cloud Cathedral) is going to hit the ball and put it in play," Skattum said. "They are a good hitting team, but I feel like our defense can get the job done."

Even though the Cardinals are happy to have made it back to state after a three-year hiatus, they will not be satisfied with just making it to the tournament.

"We don't want to have the concept of just being happy to be there," Wenninger said. "We want to play our best brand of baseball, compete at the highest level possible and be successful."

Luverne faces off with St. Cloud Cathedral today at 10 a.m. at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud, with the winner moving on to take on the winner of No. 5 Kasson-Mantorville and No. 4 Hermantown at noon Friday. The loser moves into the consolation bracket and will play at either 10 a.m. or 12:30 p.m. Friday at Joe Faber Field in St. Cloud.

"We can't be nervous," Solma said. "Hopefully we come out strong and play some good defense and offense. I'm really hoping we can knock them off."