ST. CLOUD - A year ago at Dick Putz Field, Duluth Marshall lost a heartbreaking Class AA state baseball semifinal 1-0 to Pierz with six sophomores in its lineup.
As crushing as the loss was, the day gave Hilltoppers coach Joe Wicklund some hope for the future of the program.
“If this leaves that taste in their mouth for the next two years, it’s one day that can launch us to greater heights because of it,” Wicklund said a year ago.
Those greater heights are already within reach for the Hilltoppers (23-4), who will play Maple Lake (24-2) at 1 p.m. today for the Minnesota Class AA state championship at Target Field in Minneapolis.
Top-seeded Marshall, which ousted fifth-seeded Caledonia 6-3 in Friday’s semifinals, will be the home team after winning a coin toss. They’ll start junior Carter Sullivan on the mound against the Irish, with junior Peter Hansen waiting in the wings if needed.
The second-seeded Irish, with future St. Scholastica pitcher Grant Mergen available after facing 13 batters in three innings Thursday, edged Jordan 4-3 in the second semifinal Friday at Dick Putz Field.
The Hilltoppers’ semifinal against Caledonia was delayed for 38 minutes with two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning due to the flash and thunderous roar of one nearby lightning strike.
“I’m just so happy for the players,” Wicklund said of playing for a state title at the home of the Minnesota Twins. “They’ve put in a ton of work. We talked to them at the beginning of the year and asked, ‘Where do you want to finish?’ The answer was ‘Target Field’ and we’ve pushed them as hard as we’ve pushed a team in our five years as coaches together. They have responded every step of the way.”
The Hilltoppers’ biggest response of the season came to that single discharge of atmospheric electricity produced by a small nearby storm cell just after 1 p.m. It proved to be the turning point in a game that was knotted at 3-3.
Hilltoppers junior Brett Benson had just entered the game in relief of senior starting pitcher Derrick Winn. The Warriors hit Winn hard, generating a run and pair of hits in each of the first three innings. Benson came on to pitch the fourth after a brief warmup. He retired the first two batters he faced with a strikeout and groundout to the mound.
Then Benson was forced to sit and wait out the delay. When he returned to the mound, Warriors junior shortstop Payton Schott crushed a triple 380 feet into the left-field ivy.
“I didn’t worry about it,” Benson said. “I just focused on hitting my spots and pitching.”
The triple was just one of two hits Benson surrendered over the final four innings as the next batter lined a hard-hit ball into the glove of junior third baseman Ben Pedersen.
Benson picked up the win in relief giving up no runs off two hits with no walks and one strikeout against the 14 batters he faced. He forced seven groundouts, three fly balls and the lineout.
It was a pitching performance that would make Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis character in “Bull Durham” - “Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist.” - proud.
“Aim low and hit my spots so they can hit groundballs,” Benson said of his strategy. “I can always trust (the fielders). The batters were also very good.
“Every guy contributes. It’s the best feeling ever.”
Sullivan, in the outfield Friday, finished 3-for-3 for Marshall with a double and an RBI a day after going 2-for-2 with a double and triple in the quarterfinals. Sullivan tied Friday’s game at 2-2 in the third with an RBI single.
Junior outfielder Alex Busick also had another good day, producing a key hit to spark the offense for the second game in a row. In a 6-2 quarterfinal win over host St. Cloud Cathedral on Thursday, he sparked a five-run second inning with an RBI double.
On Friday, he drove in the winning run in the top of the fifth with a two-out blast that got lost in the left-field ivy for a ground-rule RBI double. Benson then drove in a second run with an infield hopper that caused confusion among the Caledonia infield.
Winn added an insurance run in the top of the seventh inning with a sacrifice fly to right field.
“Everybody put in the work in the offseason because they knew we were coming back. They want to win it all,” Busick said. “It’s nuts, it’s going to be really fun. Playing where the Twins play, it’s going to be fun.”