By Rob LaPlante
Crow River News Sports
Do or die is the scenario for every team once you drop down to the loser’s bracket of the Section 8AAA playoffs.
After a heartbreaking 3-2 loss at Alexandria, the St. Michael-Albertville baseball team knew they had to run the table if they were going to make an attempt at a fourth state title.
The trek to six straight wins without a loss started with a 3-1/2 hour bus ride May 30 to Bemidji. It appeared lady luck was against the road team before the game even started as bus failures delayed the 7:30 p.m. start nearly an hour.
When the Knights and Lumberjacks finally took the field, STMA junior pitcher Brandon Rankila and Bemidji senior Drew Peterson locked horns, each pitching five shutout innings.
A sacrifice fly by senior Bailey Solberg in the top of the sixth broke the ice and the Knights put it away scoring five more in the seventh, thanks to sophomore infielder Tyler Berg’s 3-run homer sparking the Knights to a 6-0 victory.
“It was pretty exciting,” said Berg, on hitting his first career varsity home run. It also went down as the only round-tripper the Knights hit all year. “(Senior Jacob) Dzubay came through before me and then I just sat on one and he gave me a good pitch to hit.”
“It’s horrible that we wait until playoffs to finally hit a home run,” said STMA head coach Paul Schumm. “But it was good to see guys step up and come through.”
Rankila earned the win pitching his first career varsity shutout.
The Knights were fortunate to have the entire weekend to prepare for a rematch with Moorhead. STMA’s bus didn’t return home from Bemidji until the waking hours of 3 a.m. Friday morning.
When the cobwebs settled, a familiar pitching matchup from the season opener at the Metrodome would take stake. Moorhead senior pitcher Michael Weismann defeated Dzubay and the Knights 2-1 in the April 22 contest.
“I felt pretty confident coming into this game,” Dzubay said. “I only gave up two hits at the dome and we made some big mistakes in that game. I knew we would figure it out this time.”
Much like the Bemidji game, both pitchers were locked into a scoreless tie heading into the latter stages of the contest. STMA posed the best threat in the bottom of the fifth, loading the bases against Weismann with nobody out. Two pitches later, sophomore Jordan Joseph delivered a clutch bases-clearing double to give the Knights a 3-0 lead. STMA tacked on two more and eventually picked up its second straight shutout win while facing elimination.
“It’s nice knowing we have sophomores coming back that picked up some key hits,” Schumm said. “It’s good for our future.”
Dzubay pitched six innings of shutout ball to earn his team-leading fifth victory of the season. He said pitching and defense was the key down the stretch.
“Our pitching kept us in the games when we weren’t hitting,” said Dzubay, who will try out this fall at Butler University as a walk-on for the Division-I baseball team. If he cracks the roster, he will be the first Knights player to ever play D-I baseball. “Hopefully I’ll make the team. It’s always been a dream of mine to play Division-I ball.”
NOT IN THE CARDS
After blowing a late 2-0 lead at top-seed Alexandria in an earlier section game, the Knights and Cardinals matched wits once again in game two of the loser’s bracket semifinals June 3 at Joe Faber Field in St. Cloud.
In another do or die game, Berg said the pressure of winning started to build each time the team took to the field.
“Yeah, I think we felt some pressure,” Berg said. “We just tried coming out like every other game and just make things happen.”
Both starting pitchers, Nick Knoblach of Alexandria and Joseph of STMA, wiggled in-and-out of early jams to ride another scoreless game into the fourth inning. Unlike the last two games, it was the Knights’ bubble that burst first as the Cardinals erupted for a four-run fourth inning, chasing Joseph for senior pitcher Tyler Dallum.
Knoblach and the Cardinals set into a groove defensively and the Knights and their season came to a screeching end in an 8-0 blowout loss.
“We were in position to make a good run at (state),” Schumm said. “I don’t know why we came out flat this last game. We should have come out excited and ready to go. But these high school kids are sometimes up and down and you don’t know what you’re going to get from them day-to-day.”