Championship games in the state baseball tournament were whipsawed by the weather, turning what was scheduled to be a one-day festival at Target Field into a double-rain-delayed slate of four games held in separate sessions two days apart. Such is life with spring sports in Minnesota, as least this year.
The baseball teams that met Monday afternoon in the final game of the season -- from Minnetonka and Stillwater in Class 4A – were like every other spring sports team in 2018 … snowed out and frozen out early in the season. But the Skippers and Ponies were able to take advantage of something that many schools don’t have: artificial turf.
Stillwater capped the season with a 4-0 victory Monday in a game that was rescheduled after rain on Saturday pushed back the start of play for nearly four and a half hours. The Class 1A, 2A and 3A games were completed Saturday.
The weather wasn’t perfect Monday, either, with rain delaying the start of the game for 22 minutes. At the end of it all, however, both teams could look back to the very early days of the season and the advantage of turf on their campuses.
Minnetonka has one of the busiest baseball diamonds in the state. Their 12-year-old facility, which has turf covering every inch, was used for three dozen high school games this spring that did not involve the Skippers. Minnetonka’s first three scheduled games of the season were wiped out by weather and they played their first home game on April 11, followed by two more postponed home games.
Stillwater’s first game, scheduled for April 5, was postponed as were the next seven dates. The Ponies finally played their opener on April 25.
Once snow was cleared from the Minnetonka field, the Skippers were able to be outside to work out. And while Stillwater doesn’t have a turf baseball field, the school has four turf football/soccer/lacrosse fields, and the baseball team took advantage of it.
Bottom line: while most teams were hitting, throwing and catching in gymnasiums and other indoor spaces, the teams that finished the season playing for the state championship were outdoors.
“We did have two scrimmages on the turf,” said Stillwater coach Mike Parker. “I think having a turf field to practice on is great. We couldn’t play games early but we were able to use it for practice, everybody was able to go outside and relieve some of that cabin fever.”
And for both teams, there was a flurry of games with little time to practice once the weather (and all the fields) cleared.
March 19 was the first day baseball teams could practice this season (following a week of conditioning that began on March 12). Minnetonka coach Paul Twenge said his team’s first outdoor practice was held on March 26 or 27.
“Then we got the snow in April, so you just push the snow off to the side,” he said. “Once it’s exposed (the turf) dries out. We had 18-20 inches of snow sitting on that thing and we were able to move it along. The field’s been great.”
There was another key component of Stillwater’s successful season.
“We were able to have a week in Florida, which was nice,” Parker said after the championship game. “If we hadn’t gotten down there, I think it would have been real tough for us.”Gilbert Goes Distance, Strikes Out 15
Stillwater junior lefthander Drew Gilbert was the star on the mound in the championship game, giving up just three hits while striking out 15 and walking two. He fanned the first six Minnetonka hitters and 10 of the first 12 Skippers outs came on strikeouts as Stillwater won its first state baseball title since 1991.
Jack Hanson had a single and double for Minnetonka and Mason Nadolny singled. Stillwater had only four hits: two by by Mason Schwerzer and one each by Gilbert and Luke Simcik. The game was scoreless until the fourth inning when singles by Gilbert and Schwerzer, coupled with a fielder’s choice and Minnetonka error, saw two runs cross. In the sixth, a hit batter and single by Schwerzer was followed by two errors to make it 4-0.
Stillwater, which finished the season with 20 straight wins, had opened the season with two losses.
“You start 0-2 and it exposes you,” Parker said. “If you don’t play well, if you don’t get better each day you’re going to be in trouble. And playing game after game and not having practices was a good thing. It was easy to just kind of rally each day, and the guys love playing baseball.
“We were able to kind of learn from our mistakes as we went. I think our kids were really receptive to the coaching. It’s been quite the ride.”
--The baseball championship was Stillwater’s fifth state title of 2017-18, with all coming during the winter and spring season. The Ponies were state champs in gymnastics, girls Nordic skiing, girls Alpine skiing, softball and baseball.Class 4A All-Tournament team:
Charles Engdahl, Wayzata; Collin Denk, Lakeville North; Connor Melton, Seth Miller, Blaine; Alex Wilde, Paxton Thompson, St. Michael-Albertville; Mason Nadolney, Nick Thimsen, Andy Andresen, Minnetonka; Andrew Gilbert, Cody Venske, Will Frisch, Stillwater. State Baseball Tournament
Heritage Christian 8, Sleepy Eye 0Class 2A
Maple Lake 8, Duluth Marshall 4Class 3A
Mahtomedi 5, Rocori 1Class 4A
Stillwater 4, Minnetonka 0Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn