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The UMAC baseball tournament was all going according to form — until the night before the three-day event at Wade Stadium last weekend. That’s when an all-time record snowfall for May 8 dropped over 10 inches of snow on Duluth. The strangeness of the weekend should have been tipped because the airport registered the record, but there was only about 2 inches in West Duluth. So Wade Stadium was ready to go on schedule Thursday afternoon.
Fourth-seeded Wisconsin Superior thumped Crown 4-1 in the opening game, which gave the Yellowjackets the privilege of coming right back to take on No. 1 seeded St. Scholastica Thursday night. That’s when the form chart went out the window, as UWS went on a crusade that dominated the storyline throughout the double-elimination tournament.
No, the Yellowjackets didn’t win the tournament, but neither did St. Scholastica, which was stunned 6-3 by Superior, and may have been so stunned that the Saints were also taken out by Northwestern Friday afternoon, making it the first time in the school’s history that it lost its first UMAC tournament game, and the first time it went out without a single victory.
One of the best items was UWS catcher Cory Albertson, a junior from Stillwater. Every tournament sees someone get the hot hands, but Albertson was off to a record-setting start. He went 4-for-4 in the opener to eliminate Crown 4-1, including two doubles. Senior right-hander Auggie Anderson from Henry Sibley shared the starring role, pitching all nine innings, scattering six hits, walking one and striking out nine.
Next game saw No. 2 seed and defending UMAC tournament champion Bethany Lutheran of Mankato rip No. 3 Northwestern 13-6. Then came the St. Scholastica challenge from its Twin Ports rival. And it was Cory Albertson time, again.
Top of the first, one on, one out, and Albertson socked a 2-run home run to stake the Yellowjackets to a 2-0 lead. The Saints got one back, but never got the lead. The Jackets put together an unusual rally in the top of the fourth for three runs, ignited by a chopped single by Travis Miller, a bunt single by Brandon Rolf, a balk, and then a walk to Bryce Flanagan, loading the bases. Next came a swinging bunt, fielded by pitcher Jake Sande, who overthrew home plate and the alert Yellowjackets scored two runs on the play. A sacrifice fly made it 5-1.
But UMAC fans know you never leave a Saints game early. Their success in baseball is legendary in Division III, and a comeback was not only possible, but likely — especially when they loaded the bases in the last of the fifth against starter Brandon Barr. Coach Frank Pufall went out after the walk that filled the bases, but he left Barr in there, and the senior came through with a dramatic strikeout of Eric Pearson to end the inning.
Barr went all the way, and the Yellowjackets won 6-3.
The magic seemed to run out when Bethany spanked UWS 4-2 with two runs in the fifth and two more in the sixth and outhit the Jackets 9-4. Alex Rodriguez went 6 innings for UWS allowing 7 hits and 4 runs, but only 2 earned.
That set up the biggest spectacle of the tournament, when UWS had to face Northwestern in an elimination game Friday night — the fourth game in two days for the Yellowjackets. Northwestern had earned that slot by shocking St. Scholastica 6-2 in a game that was a tight 3-2 until the Eagles scored three in the top of the ninth.
Northwestern held narrow leads of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-1 over the Yellowjackets Fridayh night, and it was still 3-1 in the eighth, when UWS got one back, sending the game into the top of the ninth, at 3-2.
A pair of walks got UWS in range, then Albertson — who else? — singled to right to drive in the thing run at 3-3. After an out, Mike Rodriguez singled to right-center to drive in the go-ahead run at 4-3, and a hit batter loaded the bases. Albertson was forced out at home, but up came Brandon Rolf, who kept contributing key hits throughout the tournament, and Rolf singled home two more runs to cap a 4-run ninth and boost UWS from a 3-2 deficit to a 6-3 lead. Albertson, Barr, Matthew Boyle, Travis Miller and Rolf each got two hits, with Rolf’s 3 RBIs the key.
Zach Bennett, who relieved Mike Piletich for the last three innings, squelched Northwestern in the last of the ninth, eliminating the Eagles, and sending UWS into Saturday’s final day needing to beat Bethany to get the chance to beat them again to win the tournament.
No, it didn’t happen. Bethany was clinging to a 1-0 lead in the last of the fourth when Jared Gesell tripled home two runs, then scored on a passed ball to make it 4-0, and the Vikings went on to reclaim the championship 7-2. Barr, designated hitter that game, went 2-4 and hit a home run, while Albertson went 1-4.
For the tournament, Albertson was 8-20, and Barr 6-22, but the UWS performance was strictly a team thing.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how well we played Saturday, considering it was our fifth game in three days,” said Coach Pufall, whose Yellowjackets wound up 18-22 for the season overall. Consider that St. Scholastica finished 24-14 despite its 0-2 tournament.
“Frankly, it’s impressive we got as close to .500 as we did considering we never won three games in a row all season. But guys like Albertson came through with big hits, and Albertson went 8-20 despite having caught 43 innings in three days. But our pitching worked out, too. Rodriguez has been our No. 1 guy all season, but we gave the ball to Anderson and Barr for the first two games, and they took it from there.”
Veteran observers of St. Scholastica’s dominance of the UMAC and the UMAC tournament over the years might make a note for next year. The Saints are still dominant, but the rest of the league is catching up. Bethany Lutheran goes on to the NCAA regional, but the rest of the league can now realistically say: “Wait till next year!”