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Whenever you choose to attend a St. Scholastica baseball game in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, or even in the UMAC post-season tournament, the best advice is to arrive early. If you show up in the second or third inning, often you find the Saints are already well ahead and on their way.
For the past 20 years, the Saints have won the UMAC tournament, which recently means an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III Regional competition. This year -- in fact, this week -- Duluth’s Wade Stadium is the site for the “Duluth Regional,” Thursday through Sunday.
That all seems appropriate, except for one thing: St. Scholastica is not invited to its own party!
St. Scholastica will be the host school for the Duluth Regional at Wade Stadium this week, but it will be Bethany Lutheran that will open the tournament against Concordia of Chicago at 11 a.m. Thursday. North Central will meet Dubuque at 3 p.m., and Wisconsin-Oshkosh will face Bethel of Arden Hills at 7 p.m. After that, winning becomes more important all day Friday and Saturday as the field wins its way down to two finalists.
But college baseball fans got a taste of what be coming last weekend, in what was certainly the most surprising tournament in UMAC history. Bethany Lutheran from Mankato, which had erved notice by reaching a tie for the regular season title with St. Scholastica with matching 14-2 records, rose up from a tightly played 4-2 loss to the Saints earlier in the tournament to whip St. Scholastica for the second time in a row for the tournament title.
The Vikings not only beat the Saints, they crushed them 17-7, which only meant they had to come back and face them again at Wade Stadium as a climax to the double-elimination tournament. Bethany pulled out a 2-1 victory in that one to win the trophy, and also to earn the first shot at an NCAA regional in school history.
Never before have their been such amazing turnabouts, and usually, it must be said, the tournament takes on a somewhat unexciting air because of the seeming certainty that St. Scholastica will win the championship, with the only question being by how much.
With five teams involved, the No. 4 and 5 teams met in what amounted to a play-in game, and Wisconsin Superior beat Northland College of Ashland in a 14-2 romp and were served up against St. Scholastica, which administered a 19-4 beating on the Yellowjackets. Bethany Lutheran, meanwhile, smacked Northwestern 10-4.
In Friday’s action, Northwestern and Wisconsin Superior met, with the loser being eliminated. That’s when the fun began in earnest. With pitching depth a factor, coaches started juggling and manipulating their staffs to get through the game at hand and prepare to win the next day, too.
The Yellowjackets broke from a 3-3 tie with four runs in the top of the seventh, and if that didn’t put it away, two more in the eighth gave UWS a whopping 9-3 lead. But Northwestern got two back in the last of the eighth to cut the deficit to 9-5 before the teams made it to the ninth inning. UWS failed to score, but then, it didn’t seem that they needed any more runs. Appearances can be deceiving, however
When pitchers use up their arms in short-tournament work, they might be able to conserve enough energy to get by with breaking pitches for a couple of innings. But the Yellowjacket staff could barely get the ball to the plate, and Northwestern played it perfectly in the last of the ninth. Nathan Ehnstrom came up with an RBI single and it was 9-6; Eric Peterson delivered a 2-run pinch-hit single, and it was 9-8. Philip Wall then cracked a double to right center, driving in two runs for an improbable 10-9 walk-off victory that sent the Eagles flying out of their dugout, uncertain who to mob first.
After that, how could there be anything stranger?
St. Scholastica faced Bethany Lutheran in a battle of unbeatens, knowing that the loser would not be eliminated, but the winner would have a substantial advantage. The Saints jumped ahead in the first, when Brad Fossum singled a run home, and then Aaron Weber singled home another for a 2-0 lead. But in th etop of the fourth, Kevin Harris singled for two runs to make it 2-2.
After four innings, Bethel was outhitting the Saints 7-2, but it was still 2-2.
Saints left-hander Joe Gorowski came on in relief and held the Vikings in check the rest of the way. But it took a spirited rally in the last of the eighth to win the game, as Fossum tripled in the go-ahead run, and first baseman Chris Olson doubled him home for a 4-2 lead that Gorowski made stand up.
With one loss, Bethany had to come back to face Northwestern in an elimination game, and Nick Caldeen’s two-run single in the last of the seventh was worth a 2-1 victory for Bethany.
The final became the first final, when St. Scholastica took on Bethany at 1 p.m. Saturday. Bethany scored in the first, and added four in the third, while the Saints countered with one in the second and three in the third, then reversed the 5-4 deficit with two runs in the last of the sixth. The Saints added what seemed like an insurance run in the last of the seventh when Steven Neutzling walked, stole second, took third on Fossum’s single, and scored on Chris Olson’s sacrifice fly.
The drama intensified again in the top of the eighth when a hit, wild pitch, sacrifice fly and single by Nick Caldeen tied the game 7-7.
The top of the ninth will be one of those innings that will be hard to forget for coach Corey Kemp and his Saints. After a single, changed pitchers, and a strikeout, two more walks loaded the bases. Like the Superior pitchers before them, the Saints couldn’t get the ball over the plate, and when they did, they didn’t have enough on them to miss the Bethany Luthern bats.
Grant Becher smacked a 2-run single to right to break the tie and make it 9-7 Vikings. Mylo Hommes lined a 2-run double to left and it was 11-7, and two more walks reloaded the bases and caused another pitching change. It got stranger still when Ben Boran’s hit made it 12-7, and after a pop up, the Vikings waited to collect a hit batter, to make it 13-7, and two walks made it 15-7. The second straight 4-pitch walk made it 16-7, and one last pitching change led to a first-pitch wild pitch and another run, sealing the 17-7 verdict.
To their credit, the Saints didn’t go down whimpering. A couple ground balls didn’t help their case, but Neutzling lined a single, and after a hit batter, Chris Olson also singled, loading the bases. Eric Pearson then ripped a line drive down the left field line, but a diving catch ended the inning, and the game.
The three and a half hour ordeal measured the first time the Saints had lost a tournament game in eight years, but it didn’t end the day for the two finalists. They had to come back and play again, both with one loss.
By then, it seemed strange that the two played a normal game, scrapping for hits and threatening rarely. In the eighth inning, Grant Becher’s sacrifice fly brought in the run that broke the 1-1 tie and gave Bethany Lutheran a 2-1 victory and a trip to the regional.