ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Duluth Marshall senior first baseman Cole Maccoux is known as the jokester in the Hilltoppers’ dugout.
“His job on the team is just to keep it light, keep it fun,” said junior left fielder Charlie Kleinschmidt. “He's got endless one-liners. Every time, every situation he's got something.”
That was the case Friday in the Class AA state tournament semifinals at Dick Putz Field, only Maccoux’s latest liner was nothing to laugh at. It was one to celebrate.
After Kleinschmidt beat out a throw to first base with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning to load the bases, Maccoux followed with a game-winning RBI single up the middle to give top-seeded Duluth Marshall a 3-2 extra-inning victory over fifth-seeded Paynesville Area, sending the Hilltoppers back to Target Field in Minneapolis for the second consecutive season.
“I got butterflies, chills running up and down my spine,” Maccoux said after his game-winning hit. “It’s every kid's dream to have the bases loaded and walk it off. It was an unreal experience, the first time I've ever had a walk off or anything like that.”
The Hilltoppers (25-1) will face Minnehaha Academy — the only school to beat Marshall all season — at 1 p.m. Thursday for the Class AA title at the home of the Minnesota Twins. Marshall, making its third consecutive appearance at state, was runner-up last year after falling to Maple Lake 8-4 at Target Field. Marshall finished fourth in 2017.
“To play at Target Field again at the end is like no other experience,” said senior pitcher Brett Benson, who after using eight pitches to earn the save in the quarterfinals on Thursday held Paynesville (22-3) scoreless in four innings of relief work Friday for the win. “At the start of the season we all asked each other what we want and we said, ‘To go back to Target Field and relive that moment the way we want.’ We’re finally getting another chance to do that.”
The hustle of Kleinschmidt and clutch hit by Maccoux in the eighth were the last in a series of critical, season-saving plays for Marshall late in the game.
With two outs and runners on first and second in the top of the seventh, senior right fielder Alex Busick made a sliding catch to keep the game tied, eventually forcing extras.
“Alex Busick made the best catch I've ever seen a high school right fielder make in the biggest spot,” Marshall coach Joe Wicklund said. “That was right at him tailing away. That's a catch all people who have ever played right field at any level dream of making and don't ever actually want to have to make.”
Senior center fielder Kevin Snyder had the defensive play of the game prior to that after running down a fly ball for the third out in the top of the fifth inning to keep Marshall within two. That opened the door for senior catcher Carter Sullivan to tie the game in the bottom half of the fifth with a two-out, two-RBI single.
A pair of Paynesville errors finally put the Hilltoppers in scoring position in the fifth. Marshall had been limited to just three hits and three baserunners in the first four innings as Paynesville’s infield swallowed up everything hit its way.
“The infield defense has been rock solid for us all year and that one inning we had a couple blips,” Paynesville coach Brad Skoglund said. “You know, they’re a heck of a ballclub, Marshall, and we battled right in there with the No. 1 team in the state.”
Thanks to the play of Paynesville early on, Wicklund said the first four innings of the semifinal required every ounce of patience his players had in them, in addition to a strong belief in each other.
“You have to believe at some point you will break through if you are doing things right,” Wicklund said. “And you have to be in a spot where you believe that the bounce will go your way or you will just hit the ball hard where someone's not. We eventually got to that spot.”