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Marshall coach Joe Wicklund, like all high school baseball coaches, stresses all season the importance of playing one game at a time, or one pitch at a time. But as the Hilltoppers departed for St. Cloud and the state Class AA segment of the state baseball tournament, Wicklund allowed a trade secret to slip out.
“This late in the season, as a coach you don’t change your focus to say it’s just about winning,” Wicklund said. “But that’s all that’s left.”
True, all the fundamentals, all the defensive strategy, and all the situational practices are done, and as of this week, winning is all that matters. Marshall, with an astounding 23-1 record that is the best in Minnesota regardless of classes, went into Thursday’s opener at Dick Putz Field against Glencoe-Silver Lake as the only true favorite among the three Northeastern Minnesota teams venturing to the state tournaments this weekend and next.
While Marshall returns to state as No. 1 seed in Class AA, upstart Denfeld makes its first state tournament trip in 65 years to put its 16-9 record on the line at Siebert Field on the University of Minnesota campus against Monticello in a Class AAA opener, also on Thursday. And South Ridge (20-6) goes to Jordan’s “Mini Met” to take on New York Mills in a Class A opener.
Hopes are high in every class in the tournament, which has semifinals on Saturday, then brings the teams back for championship match-ups next Thursday. Getting through quarterfinal day is foremost for Denfeld and South Ridge, and while it’s obviously important to Marshall as well, the Hilltoppers are tournament hardened, and know what is required to go all the way.
“Everybody knows about Ben Pedersen and Peter Hansen, but they might not know about Brett Benson, and Brett is the reason we’re as good as we are.”
To open 7AA, Marshall hammered Two Harbors 18-0, then came right back and blitzed Moose Lake-Willow River 19-1 the same day. “But it wasn’t as easy at it sounds,” Wicklund said. “Against Moose Lake, we went down 1-2-3 in the first inning — then got 13 runs in the second.”
Facing Esko in the 7AA championship game at Proctor, in fact, Wicklund sent Benson to the mound. He responded by shutting out the Eskomos in a 9-0 romp that saw the Hilltoppers break a 0-0 game with four runs in the top of the second inning, and they never looked back. Pedersen singled to right to start the rally, and Tyler Johnson followed with a triple to right-center, and the Toppers never looked back. Johnson, in fact, drove in Pedersen again in the top of the seventh to cap the scoring at 9-0.
Wicklund, in his sixth season at the helm, feels particularly close to this team. “This group has been together for six years, as long as I’ve been here,” Wicklund said. “And this is the best version of this group. All of our seniors have the talent to play college ball.
“If we have a surprise, maybe it’s the ‘arrival’ of Charlie Klkeinschmidt. He’s one of two juniors we have, and he worked a ton in the weight room, and after playing since seventh grade on JV and Varsity, we plugged him into the sixth spot in the batting order right at the start, and left him there.”
Wicklund’s team concept has clearly rubbed off on his players, who remain poised and consistent no matter what happens in any game. “Our team culture is strong,” he said. “We work on defense mostly in practice, and we’re to the point where everybody seems to be able to execute under pressure.
“As hitters, we’re definitely patient. We don’t go up swinging at first pitches very often, and our hitters seem comfortable taking one or even two strikes and then hitting with two strikes. We tend to be pitch-watchers, although we’ve definitely given them the freedom to be the type of hitter they want to be. Our plan is make sure we get every player to the place where they can be successful.”
Marshall, suffering from the same early season weather as other Northern teams, lost an early game, 5-4, to Minnetonka. And that’s it. Nobody Up North questions Marshall’s potential, and especially those rivals in Class AA. Marshall won its five Section 7AA games by outscoring foes 67-2.
The plan for the tournament is for Pedersen to pitch the opening game and go as far as he can, comfortably. With a pitch count of 115, Wicklund figures he won’t be able to come back if there’s a second game Saturday. “You don’t fool around at the state tournament,” Wicklund said. “It’s a dogfight to win two games, and if we win the first one, we can choose from among Brett Benson, Peter Hansen, Carter Sullivan, or Matt Erickson, our tall, lanky left-hander.”
Or, all of the above. Whatever, reaching the final would mean Pedersen and everybody else will be rested and ready.
The other Northern teams may not be tournament hardened, but they survived rigid tests to get there.
Denfeld got through the double elimination undefeated, but had to face a red-hot Grand Rapids team in the final. The Thunderhawks, needing to win once and then win a second game to claim the 7AAA title, whipped Denfeld 5-0 and had all the momentum in Wade Stadium for the rematch. But Denfeld jumped to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first, and made it 6-1 with three more in the top of the third, while Matt Rukavina stopped Grand Rapids cold. It was 10-1 before Rapids got two in the sixth, and the Hunters prevailed 10-3.
In the Section 7A final, South Ridge faced the same challenge from Ely. The Timberwolves had to beat South Ridge, and then win again to take the title. Ely got a solid lead, with a 9-2 lead in the sixth, but South Ridge rallied for two, and then four, before falling 9-8 in a nail-biting finish.
That brought the teams back for a second game at busy Wade Stadium. But South Ridge put it all together for a 9-0 rout that won the 7A title and sent South Ridge on to state.
Whatever Denfeld and South Ridge accomplish this weekend, they won’t have to win two games back to back to do it.