SPRING GROVE – Tuesday provided a delightful setting for baseball here in this southeastern Minnesota village. The unbeaten Rockets from Randolph High School took the long bus ride to meet the once-beaten Spring Grove Lions in a Southeast Conference doubleheader. To say Randolph is in the “southeast” is a bit of a stretch; the town is 40 miles southeast of downtown Minneapolis and 118 miles northwest of Spring Grove.
Because of the toll taken on spring sports by our extended winter, MSHSL baseball and softball teams have the option of playing two five-inning games in a doubleheader. That was the setup here Tuesday, and the two games were quite snappy. The opener lasted 53 minutes and the second game took 73 minutes. These were two talented teams, committing only three total errors and coaches making only three visits to the mound in the 10 innings of play.
The event was small town to the core. When Spring Grove’s Alex Folz hit a sharp single on the first pitch in the bottom of the first inning of Game 1, a car horn honked in appreciation. The sun was bright, the grass was green and pork chops and pork burgers were sizzling on a grill manned by baseball parents Phil Griffin and Butch Sanness.
“It’s been a perfect year after the rough weather,” said Randolph coach Chris Stanton. “The weather’s been nice since then.”
Randolph came out on top of both games by scores of 4-1 and 8-4. That was a bit of a downer for the hometown fans who cheered from metal bleachers, lawn chairs and front seats of automobiles. One of the Lions’ biggest longtime fans wasn’t in attendance, at least not literally. But Pauleen Bratland was almost surely paying attention, even though she passed away in January after 85 years of pure Spring Grove spirit.
Her hometown was everything to Pauleen. She graduated from the high school (current 9-12 enrollment: 101) in 1950, she and husband Vernon operated the local A&W in the 1960s and 1970s, and Pauleen and another longtime Lions backer, Karen Langlie, were named Spring Grove Fans of the Year by the athletic booster club. Pauleen was 79 years old at the time of that high honor.
Pauleen’s wonderful obituary included this passage: “Pauleen was also so happy when high school baseball finally came back to Spring Grove and couldn’t figure out why it ever left.”
From 2010 until 2015 Spring Grove was in a cooperative baseball arrangement with nearby Caledonia. There is no shortage of hometown pride in places like Spring Grove, however. Baseball coach Chris Strinmoen (Spring Grove's Male Athlete of the Year as a senior in 1996) worked hard at getting a summer youth baseball program on a strong footing, and folks began improving the ballfield. A direct appeal to baseball alumni quickly brought in more than $7,000. A grant from the Twins Community Fund followed, as did lots of fundraising events, donated labor, discounted materials and more cash, including sizable support from the City of Spring Grove. The infield dirt was removed and replaced, roomy new dugouts were built, and a 50-year-old concession stand was replaced by a modern new building that includes handicap-accessible bathrooms, a concession stand and a second-level viewing platform.
A project that would have carried a retail price tag of more than $300,000 was done at a cost of little more than $100,000. Improvements will continue, thanks to continuing support from local contractors and local labor.
Mention the ballpark to anybody in town and you’ll be met with an immediate smile.
“It’s brought people out, it’s brought kids out to participate because they’re not embarrassed playing here,” said baseball coach Chris Strinmoen, a 1996 Spring Grove graduate. “What we had before was pretty rough. The community’s really excited about what we’ve got and the players obviously enjoy it, too.”
Followers of prep sports in our state remember the Spring Grove football team from last fall. The Lions won the school’s first-ever state championship, going wire to wire, finishing 14-0 and bringing home the nine-man football title from U.S. Bank Stadium. That kind of success has rubbed off on everybody, including the boys of spring.
“It gives your guys, your school, confidence that you can compete at the best level,” Strinmoen said. “Going into the baseball season, we’re a young program, and they just have a bit more of a swagger this year.”
Now in their third season as a stand-alone baseball program, the Lions have made great strides. They finished 7-11 in the first year and 8-10 last season. The number of errors has been cut in half since year one and the team batting average has risen by 40 points.
“We’re seeing the fruits now of these young guys kind of struggling through it a little bit,” the coach said. “Now they’re a little more comfortable.”
They weren’t quite comfortable enough to beat Randolph. The Rockets have a deep baseball tradition, going back to long before a future member of the Minnesota Twins named Caleb Thielbar was a senior in 2005. The Rockets of 2018 can swing the bat and crush the ball, as evidenced by a five-hit, six-run third inning in Tuesday’s second game.
The Lions never quit, though, and that was a lesson that was partially learned through years of football disappointment. Grand Meadow dominated nine-man football for years, winning every state title from 2012 to 2016 and usually ending Spring Grove’s season in the Section 1 playoffs. The tide turned last fall.
“We knew we were one of the best teams in the state but no one knew about us because of Grand Meadow every year. It was nice to put our name out there,” said senior football/basketball/baseball player Adin Solum, among 15 of the 17 baseball players who were on the football and/or basketball teams.
Alex Folz, who quarterbacked the football team, said, “I think in football we had a lot of ‘never quit’ and ‘always keep going.’ I think that transfers to baseball. If we get down a little bit we know we can always come back. We know we have it in us.”
As the baseball regular season winds down and the postseason looms, the Lions are ready to make a run. There is a sense of “do it now” for the three seniors on the roster; Solum, Austin Patterson and Sam Sanness. And there is a sense of “do it here” at their top-tier home field.
“With the new ballpark, it shows what a small community like ours can do and how much confidence they have in us,” Folz said. “If they didn’t have confidence in us they wouldn’t have given us this nice ballpark. And all the people who helped put it together, it was just amazing.”
Yes, folks in Spring Grove are happy and proud of what has been accomplished. Almost everyone pitched in however they could, including super fan Pauleen Bratland.
How happy was she that baseball had returned to the town she loved so much? After Pauleen’s death, a generous donation from her estate was made to the ballpark fund.--To see a photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn