When the rain finally cleared Thursday night, the rare sound of aluminum bats rang through the air under the lights at Target Field as the stadium played host to the MSHSL State Championship Baseball Finals.
In a somewhat surprising matchup for the AAAA Championship game, No. 5 East Ridge faced off against No. 7 New Prague. On their path to the title game, East Ridge defeated No. 1 Stillwater in the semifinals while New Prague bounced No. 2 Blaine in the quarterfinals.
East Ridge took advantage of one tough inning for the Trojans, rolling to a 7-2 victory claiming their first ever state title in a game that was much closer than the final score showed.
“These guys have been talking about this for a long time, since they we’re kids, so it is huge,” said head coach Brian Sprout. “I think it sets a standard that we want to and compete at the highest level against anybody we get the opportunity to play against.”
Senior Ryan Thelen pitched all seven innings for East Ridge, striking out three and allowing only two runs, scattering five hits in a complete game effort.
“We came out here like it was a regular baseball game, just on a big stage” said Thelen when asked about playing at Target Field.
Thelen got a little help early from his defense after one run had scored on a pair of throwing errors. Raptors freshman left fielder Weber Neels made a sensational catch on the warning track to end the inning, ending the scoring opportunity and keeping the damage to just one run allowed.
“The ball got caught up in the lights but I just kept back tracking, kept my eye on it and just got out there to make the play” Neels said describing the catch.
Senior Joe Trollen finally broke through for the Raptors in the bottom of the fifth with a double to right-center field. He then advanced to third on a single by senior Tanner Stafne, later scoring on a base hit just out of the reach of the New Prague shortstop to tie the game at 1-1.
Forcing Tupy to throw from the stretch after 4 and 1/3 perfect innings was what the Raptors needed to open the flood gates. In the next at bat, Neels came up big again, this time with a bases clearing double to left center, as East Ridge grabbed their first lead of the game.
“Just going up to the at-bat with the same approach, nothing changes use the same mindset,” Neels said reflecting on the at bat that finally seemed to turn the momentum for good. “We needed a big hit, just one hit breaks the ice and creates a domino effect.”
After a few hard hit balls and a couple of fielding mishaps allowing, the Raports took advantage of the extra outs and put together a five run inning, now leading 5-1
The Trojans refused to go down quietly, but East Ridge added a couple more runs and Thelen shut the door, leading the Raptors to a 7-2 win for their first state title, in their first trip to the State Tournament.
“It’s an unreal experience,” Neels said. “It’s just another baseball game for us, it was a lot of fun.”
Before the Trojans and Raptors could take the field, No. 3 St. Thomas Academy and No. 5 Benilde-St. Margaret faced off in the Class AAA Final, which was pushed back due to a two-hour, 45 minute rain delay.
St. Thomas Cadet senior Duke Coborn out-dueled Red Knights pitcher, junior Blake Mahmood in a 1-0 victory to earn the State Title for St. Thomas. Both Mahmood and Coborn tallied nine strikeouts and relied on some strong defense behind them on their way to matching complete games, also earning All-Tournament Honors for both pitchers.
“What goes through my mind is just focusing on getting people out,” Coborn said when asked about his bulldog mentality as a pitcher with runners on in scoring position. “Stranding runners, having trust in my defense that they are going to make great plays. There is never a doubt in my mind, I just need to get strikes and bare down.”
Both starting pitchers turned in defensive gems early, helping their own cause in the tight contest. With a runner on third and no outs, Coborn fielded a ground ball off the mound and threw home to catcher Evan Brown who got the tag down on a runner streaking from third, denying the first run of the game.
In the next half inning, with runners on first and second and only one out, BSM left fielder Charlie Kleinschmidt made a sliding catch next to the left field tarp as both the shortstop and third basemen converged on the foul ball. With third base vacated, the Cadets runner tried to tag-up and advance, but Mahmood won a foot race to the bag, caught the thrown and applied the tag for an inning ending double play.
The Cadets broke through first and only run when Michael Goblisch singled to left field, allowing Joseph Young to score from second base. The eventual winning run was all Coborn would needed.
As the rain started to fall again, Benilde found themselves still down a run in the bottom of the 6th. Mounting a threat with two runners on and two outs, senior Ian Bahr singled to center but Jonny Woodford was thrown out at the plate trying to score from second on a perfect strike from STA center fielder Charles Berg, preserving the shutout.
“That’s what I expect out for Bergy honestly. He is so great defensively, I just have so much trust in him,” said Coborn. “He has such a great arm and he has the ability to throw it on the plate every time.”
St. Thomas clung to their 1-0 lead with the Red Knights again threatening in the bottom of the seventh, but the Cadets were also able to persevere for their first title in school history.
Earlier in the day, the top-seed in Class AA Duluth Marshall found themselves in a two-run deficit late against the No. 2 Minnehaha Academy Redhawks. After getting one back in the top of the sixth inning and Hilltoppers’ bats came alive for a three-spot in the seventh, completing the rally for a dramatic 4-2 final.
In Class A, the BOLD (Bird Island-Olivia-Lake Lillian) Warriors defeated New York Mills, riding a one-hit complete game shutout by junior pitcher, Jordan Sagedahl, and a six run sixth inning to an 8-0 victory.