MINNEAPOLIS - Duluth Marshall baseball coach Joe Wicklund knows where his program sits in the Northland sports food chain, especially this weekend.
Wicklund is the chair of the board for Grandma’s Marathon, the biggest event put on by the city every year. It not only captivates the surrounding area, but much of the state of Minnesota.
Meanwhile, his high school baseball team was playing in the state tournament down south in St. Cloud and Minneapolis and he was happy nabbing any eyeballs he could.
“If we can pull a tiny bit of that attention of Duluth down here, that would be pretty special,” Wicklund said Thursday.
Wicklund and the Hilltoppers caught the attention of Duluth and much of the baseball world in Minnesota this weekend by advancing to the Minnesota Class AA state championship game Saturday at Target Field. Marshall lost the final to Maple Lake 8-4, but the program figures to be in a great position to return to the home of the Minnesota Twins next season.
Last year the Hilltoppers reached the state tournament for the first time in program history, reaching the semifinal round with six sophomores in the lineup. Saturday they played in their first state title game, losing to the Irish with a starting lineup that included one senior, eight juniors and a sophomore.
“It was an amazing feeling,” said catcher Derrick Winn, the lone senior in Marshall’s lineup. “We’ve wanted this for four years, and we finally got it. There’s not too much more you can ask for.
“To see the younger kids start out as freshmen and build up and build up and get better every year, it’s been the greatest thing ever.”
Marshall was forced to wait a little longer than it initially hoped to play in its first state championship. The teams endured a 4-hour, 20-minute rain delay that pushed the start of the Class A championship game - Heritage Christian beat Sleepy Eye 8-0 - from 10 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. The Hilltoppers and Irish, whose first pitch was scheduled for 1 p.m., didn’t start until 5:13 p.m.
Junior Carter Sullivan started on the mound for the Hilltoppers against Maple Lake senior Grant Mergen, the ace of the Irish pitching staff. Mergen threw fewer than 30 pitches in three innings Thursday in a 9-0 quarterfinal victory over Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, meaning he could pitch Saturday on one day of rest.
Maple Lake was ahead 6-0 in the third inning on Thursday when coach Brooks Marquardt went to the mound to see what his pitcher thought of coming out. Up until then, Marquardt said he and his assistants were hesitant to make the move because it could backfire.
He said Mergen gave the OK wanting to throw again in the championship. Mergen went the distance on Saturday, giving up four runs off eight hits with five strikeouts and two walks.
“I love getting an idea of what my team is feeling,” Marquardt said of his pitching strategy in the state tournament. “I go to our seniors a lot. (Mergen) is one of three captains. I won’t make a big decision like that unless I have their approval and that’s what I did.”
The Hilltoppers let their ace, junior Ben Pedersen, go the distance Thursday in a 6-2 quarterfinal win over St. Cloud Cathedral at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud. Marshall then used Winn and junior Brett Benson in the 6-3 semifinal win over Caledonia on Friday in St. Cloud.
That left the Hilltoppers with a duo for the championship that Wicklund said he was confident with - Sullivan and junior Peter Hansen - despite them being fourth and fifth in the rotation.
Sullivan was relieved by Hansen in the top of the third inning after giving up five runs off six hits. Sullivan left with runners on first and third with no outs.
Hansen finished strong, giving up three runs off five hits with five strikeouts and no walks.
“The biggest thing that got to us today was Maple Lake’s bats,” Wicklund said. “They are an incredible hitting team and we knew that. We figured by all estimates this would prove who is the best hitting team in the state and they are.
“The thing they had on us more anything was an ace in the hole in Mergen and we knew we were going to run out the back end for us. I’m impressed with how Carter battled. I’m incredibly impressed with how Peter Hansen pitched with no warm up.”
Marshall scored the game’s first run via a two-out RBI single by Pedersen in the bottom of the first inning, scoring junior second baseman Maddux Baggs from third base. Baggs was bunted into scoring position, from first to third, by Hansen.
The Hilltoppers then moved ahead 3-1 after two innings, taking advantage of a pair of Maple Lake throwing errors and a sacrifice RBI by junior outfielder Alex Busick to score two runs.
The Irish seized the lead in the top of the third, going ahead 4-3 in the top of the third inning thanks to an RBI double from senior Cole Trager and a two-RBI single by Mergen, all with no outs.
The Irish added three more runs in the top of the fourth and Marshall wouldn’t respond until the bottom of the fifth via an sacrifice RBI by Winn to cut the margin to four.
The Hilltoppers threatened in the bottom of the seventh with runners on first and third with no outs, but Mergen retired the side for the state title.
“It felt like we played a good game today, honestly,” Pedersen said. “They have some good bats and they proved that. They put a lot of balls into gaps and we couldn’t really do a whole lot about it. We fought back and forth for a while. It was a good game.”
Only three classes were played Saturday at Target Field due to the lengthy rain delay. The Class AAAA championship between Minnetonka and Stillwater Area was moved to 1 p.m. Monday at Target Field.
- Marshall’s Hansen, Pedersen and Sullivan were named to the Class AA all-tournament team.