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Missing key cog, Ely opens state baseball tournament

When Ely takes the field opposite New York Mills today in the quarterfinals of the Minnesota Class A high school baseball tournament, it will do so without lineup linchpin Bobby Shusta.

But it won’t be for a lack of effort on Shusta’s part.

The senior nearly made it all the way back from a freak head injury sustained before the Timberwolves’ May 21 game at Nashwauk-Keewatin. Shusta absentmindedly walked into the path of teammate Louie Gerzin’s warm-up swing. He was struck on the back of the head, resulting in a fractured skull and bleeding in the brain.

Shusta initially was transported to a hospital in Hibbing before being airlifted to Essentia Health -St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth. A wild three weeks ensued, including Ely’s graduation, which Shusta made it back for — replete with a police escort into town. And the hope was that the Timberwolves’ center fielder and table-setting leadoff hitter would return to the lineup if Ely advanced to state, which it did via a 2-0 victory over South Ridge in the Section 7A finals.

But Shusta isn’t quite ready yet.

“At practice the other day, I actually felt really well, but my body just isn’t there after not doing anything for three weeks,” Shusta said by phone Wednesday.

On the same day the Timberwolves beat South Ridge, Shusta was cleared to play by his doctor in Duluth. But minor concussion symptoms have persisted, so it’s likely that any action he sees this week won’t be much more than an inning or two in the outfield.

“We talked about that today and he mentioned, ‘Hey, if I get a chance to get out there and play a couple innings in the field, that’d be great,’ ” Ely coach Frank Ivancich said. “He knows, he understands, and he has a lot of baseball left to be played here; it’s not like his career is done.”

Shusta hopes to get back on the field with Ely’s American Legion team by the end of the month. He also will play collegiately at Vermilion Community College.

This week, though, he will be a ridiculously talented cheerleader for the Timberwolves (21-2), who open their fourth state tournament against No. 2-seeded New York Mills (23-0) at 5:30 p.m. today at Chaska Athletic Park in Chaska, Minn.

The trip south isn’t a total wash for Shusta, though. An avid outdoorsman, he stopped in Delano on Wednesday morning to get his bow reset.

“So he was all fired up about that,” Ivancich joked.

Gerzin gets the pitching nod today. He will try to tame an offense that is averaging almost nine runs per game. The Eagles have a history of harassing Northland teams at the state tournament. Two years ago, they scored three runs in the seventh inning to rally past Ely for the consolation championship, and last year they clipped Floodwood 6-5 in the quarterfinals.

At the 2012 tournament, the Timberwolves went 1-2 despite being tied or leading in 19 of their 21 innings, Ivancich said. What was missing was a key hit or a favorable bounce — any kind of break. They hope the opposite is true in Chaska.

“If we pitch like we can and play some defense, we’re going to be in every ballgame,” he said. “We have to get a few breaks and get some timely hitting, and we’ll be fine.”

Gerzin, 5-1 with a 1.58 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 40 innings, admits it’s been weird to go through the section playoffs without his good friend, Shusta. He says Ely has the depth to offset Shusta’s absence, but it won’t be easy.

“It’s tough because he’s a high-energy kid,” said Gerzin, who’s also headed to Vermilion to play football and baseball. “He’s a great player, good hitter, good center fielder, but we need to step up and win a couple of these games.”

Gerzin fretted over Shusta’s health in the days after the accident, even spending two days with him at Essentia. Shusta was quick to accept blame — “I know it was my fault,” he said Wednesday — but Gerzin still felt horrible.

“Once we knew he was going to be all right, I was able to kind of let go of it,” Gerzin said.

Today’s prep baseball game

Ely (21-2) vs. New York Mills (23-0)

What: Class A state tournament quarterfinal

When: 5:30 p.m.

Where: Chaska Athletic Park, Chaska, Minn.

Outlook: Pitching and defense have been the Timberwolves’ bread and butter this spring. Still, it’s not like the team sports an anemic offense. So it was a little jarring when Ely’s team batting average was listed as a paltry .181 on the state tournament media guide. “I was like ‘.181? What are they talking about? We’re hitting .319!’ ” said coach Frank Ivancich, who admitted he may have submitted the incorrect information. Jeff Willis, normally a right fielder, replaces injured Bobby Shusta in center, and Ben Gantt takes Willis’ spot. Louie Gerzin (5-1, 1.58 ERA) and Will Gustafson (7-1, 1.31) front a lethal pitching staff. The duo combined to go 4-0 in the Section 7A playoffs, allowing just one run and seven hits while producing a 0.29 ERA. Gerzin (.414 batting average, 20 RBIs), Pat Huisman (.483, 24) and Elliot Omerza (.392, 20) lead the offense. Huisman, just a sophomore, led the team in hitting for the second consecutive season. Ely, which is making its fourth overall appearance, is unseeded. … The undefeated Eagles are seeded second and are making their fourth straight trip to state. They finished third a year ago. Pitchers Brandon Kupfer (9-0) and Tyler Patron (6-0) went a combined 15-0 with ERAs of 0.81 and 0.87, respectively. Kupfer also tallied 36 RBIs and hit .612 on offense, while Patron boasts a .493 batting average. New York Mills outscored its opponents 204-31.

Quotable: “I feel good about the bracket that we’re in. I think that top bracket is kind of loaded. We just drew one of those bottom three seeds and I don’t know if New York Mills is very happy about playing us.” — Ivancich.