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Legion baseball: Luverne won't coast into state

Luverne coach Barry Shelton and Worthington coach Jeff Nelson meet with the umpires prior to the two teams’ American Legion game in Worthington last week. (ZACH HACKER/DAILY GLOBE)

LUVERNE — The lure of an American Legion state baseball tournament inspires some teams to play their best summer baseball.

But what if you’ve got an automatic bid, anyway?

That’s the conundrum that greets the Luverne Legion baseball team on the verge of sub-district tournament action set to begin on Thursday. Post 123 will host the state tournament this year, meaning Luverne will get an automatic bid.

Automatic bids can inspire complacency, and complacency is what Luverne head coach Barry Shelton hopes to guard against.

“They know that they’re in the state tournament. But I also need to sit the guys down and say you have to stay sharp these next two weeks,” Shelton said on Monday.

There are seven teams in the District 2, Division II sub-district B tournament: Luverne, Pipestone, Jackson, Windom, Wabasso, Springfield at Redwood. First-round games on Thursday will be played at the higher seed, with Luverne hosting the rest. Post 123 has enjoyed a pretty successful summer, as have teams from Jackson and Windom.

Shelton said Luverne’s winning tradition — both at the high school level and in summer ball — helps to encourage players to reach high. But Post 123 has shown some inconsistency already this year. After winning its own Luverne/Pipestone Tournament recently, it was beaten by Worthington 15-1 (a team Luverne defeated 25-3 during the 2014 high school campaign). Shelton chalked up the loss as “championship hangover” from the weekend before, but it serves as a helpful reminder that games aren’t won on paper.

The Luverne Legion team sported a 9-3 summer record through last weekend, with its only losses occurring against Worthington, Jackson and Groton, S.D. The team’s goal is to win the district tournament.

“I expect them to do very well in the playoffs,” Shelton said. “We’ve played good baseball when we have everybody there, and when they’re not, we don’t do as well.”

That can be true, of course, with every Legion baseball squad. Summer is a time not just for baseball, but for summer vacations. And summer jobs. Every team struggles with missing players from time to time, and several area teams have played games with very thin benches. Luverne is fortunate, however, that many of the players that led the Cardinals to the state Class AA tournament in 2013 and brought them close to a return trip in June are performing with the Legion squad. That includes one of the area’s top hitters, Josh Slieter, who was selected following his senior year at LHS to play in the Play Ball Minnesota High School Baseball All-Star Series. Also leading Post 123 are Skyler Wenninger, who began a promising baseball career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Gunnar Olson and Logan Norman fill out a veteran core.

“The thing that’s been good for us, we’ve got a deep pitching staff. We’ve got 11 players who can pitch,” Shelton said.

Jackson hopes to be another tournament contender despite having played a thin summer schedule mostly due to rainouts. The team sported a 5-2 record before Monday’s scheduled game against Windom.

Post 130 demonstrated its pitching strength on June 30 when pitchers Chris Gumto, Jeremiah Flatgard and Nick Arp combined to no-hit Wabasso, 10-0. Coach Blaise Jacobson claims Gumto (a hard-throwing righthander with a good off-speed pitch) and Scott Christopher (a righty with good control and a slow off-speed pitch that keeps hitters on their front foot) as his solid 1-2 punch on the mound. Jared Bakalyar and Easton Bahr have been hitting the ball well.

Speed and defense are positives for Jackson this year, which is important because the team has not been able to produce offense consistently.

“Hopefully, we can make a run here and get Gumto and Scotty some good run support. If we keep playing good defense, we can go far,” Jacobson said.

Windom, as it has done during the spring high school campaign, has been led this summer by its solid pitching staff. Righthanders Sam Huska and Wyatt Stevens and left-hander Taylor Quiring all earned their stripes as Eagles, and they give Post 206 a chance to win every time they step toward the mound.

Through last weekend, Pipestone emerged victorious only once in Legion ball — a 15-5 win over Flandreau, S.D., on Sunday. Coach Scott Sterud continues to work with his boys of summer regarding inconsistent defense, swinging at too many first-strikes at the plate, and situational plays. Progress has been shown, however, in some recent losses that have been closely fought.

Another area Legion team, Worthington, awaits tournament action in Division I, District 2 where the team performed well last year. In late July, Post 5 played New Ulm Gold in the championship game, finally losing 5-4 on a close play at the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. Catcher Blake Rogers, who blocked the plate but was unable to prevent the winning run from crossing, is back with the team with one year of college experience under his belt.

Rogers, along with Ryan Lee, Tyler Hatterman and Alex Purdy, provide Worthington with a solid core of run producers. But Post 5 has been inconsistent at times in the pitching department, especially in the area of balls and strikes. The victory over Luverne showed that Worthington can come up big, but the team was unable to win a game in an Alexandria tournament last weekend.

There are several good programs residing in Division I, District 2, including teams from Fairmont, Mankato and New Ulm.

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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