Everything about Duluth Marshall’s third consecutive trip to the state tournament suggests the Hilltoppers have a golden opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done since 1950 — bring a prep baseball championship back to the Zenith City.
The Hilltoppers are as deep as they are talented, with a roster dominated by seniors and three-year starters. They are Class AA’s No. 1 seed. They finished runner-up to Maple Lake in 2018. They average better than nine runs a contest and have four pitchers sporting earned-run averages below 1.00, including right-handed wiz Ben Pedersen, who was chosen by Baltimore in the 38th round of last week’s Major League Baseball draft.
And yet, Marshall coach Joe Wicklund refutes the notion that anything less than a victory June 20 at Target Field will be a letdown. It is, after all, really hard to claim a state title.
“The goal certainly when you get there is to win the thing, and we believe we have the talent to do that, but I would imagine that Glencoe-Silver Lake feels the exact same way,” Wicklund said of Thursday’s quarterfinal opponent.
The Hilltoppers (23-1) and unseeded Panthers (19-5) meet at 10 a.m. Thursday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud. Marshall enters on a 21-game winning streak, brimming with confidence and — just as importantly — unburdened by expectations.
“I don’t think any of the guys really feel pressure,” senior second baseman and Augustana commit Maddux Baggs said. “We’re all relaxed. We’ve all been here before.”
If the Hilltoppers win Thursday, they’ll oppose either Paynesville or Perham at noon Friday in the semifinals.
How loaded is the Hilltoppers’ pitching staff? Peter Hansen, recruited to NCAA Division I Bradley University as a hurler, has thrown a mere 12 innings this spring, none of which came during five Section 7AA playoff games.
Because of his cohorts’ dominance, Hansen simply hasn’t been needed on the mound.
Consider: Matt Erickson is 2-0 with a 0.32 ERA, Brett Benson is 6-0 with a 0.58 ERA and Carter Sullivan is 4-0 with a 0.67 ERA. Then there’s Pedersen, the 6-foot-6 University of Missouri commit who is 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 50 1/3 innings.
Pedersen will start Thursday.
Marshall is rather comfortable with the big fella on the bump.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, 11,” Wicklund said of the Hilltoppers’ comfort level. “What Ben brings to the table as a pitcher, it allows us to know that we don’t need to be perfect in other aspects of our game. We aren’t going to have to score four, five, six, seven runs most likely to be on the right side of the scoreboard — three or four might do the trick.”
Added Baggs: “We all know that he’ll be locked in.”
Where base hits go to die
Part of the reason Hansen hasn’t pitched much is because he’s so dang valuable at shortstop. Before the season, Pedersen called Hansen and Baggs the best middle infield in the state, and it’s hard to argue.
If there’s a grounder within the same zip code as the Marshall duo, it’s a safe bet one of them will track it down. It’s like watching the Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa or — for the history buffs — Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese of the old-school Brooklyn Dodgers.
Hansen and Baggs have impossible range and strong arms. They are wildly athletic, capable of making both the routine outs and the web gems. While double plays are rare in high school baseball, that’s not the case with the Hilltoppers. Hansen and Baggs make them look easy.
“I would say one of the absolute joys of coaching this team is getting to sit back and watch those two do their thing, especially turning double plays,” Wicklund said. “It’s a pretty special treat that we don’t take for granted.”
Nor do Marshall’s pitchers. With a mid-90s fastball, Pedersen piles up strikeouts. But that’s not true of all his rotation mates.
“Pitching to contact is really key for guys like me and Brett and Matt,” Sullivan said. “Having (Hansen and Baggs) to rely on, they’ll always get a groundball and get you out of tough situations.”
Sullivan catches when he isn’t pitching, something that, save for a few games last season, he hadn’t done since Little League. But Marshall had a hole behind the plate after Derrick Winn graduated, and Sullivan has filled it brilliantly.
He’s one of six Hilltoppers with a batting average of .400 or better. Pedersen leads the way at .531, while Tyler Johnson’s 36 RBIs are tops.
Tall task awaits South Ridge
In the Class A quarterfinals, unseeded South Ridge (20-6) takes on No. 2 New York Mills (19-4) at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Mini Met in Jordan,
The Panthers are making their second state appearance in as many years. They finished fourth last June after opening the tournament with a 5-1 victory against Rushford-Peterson.
Junior Mason Lane leads South Ridge. His .403 batting average is tied with Logan Young and his 28 RBIs are the most by a South Ridge player. As a pitcher, Lane is 5-1 with a 1.57 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 40 innings.
Thursday’s winner will hook up with either Sacred Heart or Hayfield in a 2:30 p.m. Friday semifinal.