Class 2A Baseball: Aitkin, Fairmont offensive juggernauts
Who: Aitkin vs. No. 2-seeded Fairmont
What: Class 2A state quarterfinals
Where: Dick Putz Field, St. Cloud
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday
The Aitkin Gobblers are entering their first Class 2A state baseball tournament unintimidated by the experienced No. 2-seeded Fairmont Cardinals.
Aitkin is 22-4 and never cracked the top 10 poll during the season. Fairmont (23-1) is making its fourth state appearance in five years and is on a school-record 23-game winning streak. Ten Cardinal players were also on Fairmont's state qualifying football and basketball teams.
One thing is for certain. Thursday's 5:30 p.m. quarterfinal game at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud is going to pit two offensive juggernauts. Aitkin has eight batters hitting better than .300 with appearances in 20 games or more and Fairmont has seven.
"We expect them to be solid," said fourth-year Aitkin head coach Jeremy Janzen. "They're a bigger school than us and probably expect to beat us, but if they sleep on us, they're going to be in the consolation bracket. I think we've got a good enough team to play with anybody down there."
As a team, the Gobblers are batting .400 compared to the Cardinals' .360. Aitkin is averaging 9.7 runs per game compared to Fairmont's 8.7. Both teams have given up an average 2.7 runs per game.
Put a Gobbler on base and he's likely to run. Aitkin runners have successfully swiped 87 bases this year compared to 46 for Fairmont.
Senior Nate Ehnstrom leads the Gobblers in batting (.480) and hits (36) and is second in RBIs (26). He is 5-1 on the mound with a 4.28 ERA in 40 innings with 46 strikeouts. He's the leadoff hitter and plays shortstop when not pitching.
Junior Jake Wynn leads the team in RBIs with 29 and is batting .325. He is 4-1 as Aitkin's closer with a 2.41 ERA and a team-high 74 strikeouts in 41 innings. He also plays first base and bats cleanup.
Junior Nic Bordwell is another key to the Gobbler pitching staff at 5-0 with 37 strikeouts and a 1.00 ERA in 27 innings.
"He's a lefty who threw a great game for us against Two Harbors," Janzen of Bordwell. "For two years he's pitched wonderfully. I think he's given up just two earned runs in two years. He's not a big power guy, but he hits his spots."
Seniors Bryan Haugly, right field, and Dan Bender, utility, are also available to help on the mound.
Sophomore Drew Nordean is second on the team in batting (20 or more games) at .419 including 26 hits and 20 RBIs. He's the designated hitter for freshman third baseman Jeb Sanford.
Senior catcher Logan Quade bats second and has a .410 average with 42 hits and 24 RBIs.
Also batting over .300 are Haugly (.302), Bender (.368), junior left fielder Jacob Hyytinen (.308) and freshman center fielder Wyatt Sanford (.393).
Just getting to the state tournament wasn't easy for the Gobblers. After opening -round wins over Rush City and Two Harbors, they lost to Duluth Marshall 16-8 in the quarterfinals, but bounced back to defeat Esko 5-0 later that day to stay alive in the losers' bracket. They then beat Virginia 5-3 and Duluth Marshall 1-0 on June 3 to get to the championship series where they had to defeat Cloquet twice and did so by scores of 7-2 and 6-4.
"We wanted to be one of the final four in the section, that was our goal," said Janzen. "Sure the seniors wanted to go to state, but we said that if you can get to the final four, anything can happen and it did happen. Now, anything can happen again.
"These guys are the finest group I've had and have the best chemistry in the four years I've coached. They get along so well, they pick each other up and are fun to be around."
The chemistry and unity of the team was echoed by the Gobbler captains.
"I expected another good season, but wasn't really expecting this. It's been a great year and this is the best team I've ever been a part of in Aitkin sports," said Ehnstrom.
"Most of us have been playing together over the years, either on Legion ball or other teams, and have really bonded together. It's kind of surreal and I still don't know how to feel about it. It still hasn't hit me yet, but I'm sure it will Thursday when we get on the field," said Quade.
Bender added, "From beginning to end this team has always had something special. We've got freshmen and sophomores stepping up for us too and that's been absolutely great. We're all brothers here."
Fairmont defeated eighth-ranked and defending section champion Luverne 12-5 in the Section 3-2A semifinals. Leadoff batter and outfielder Dick Waletich belted a solo homer to open the game and finished 4-4 with two RBIs and three runs scored.
The Cards beat 10th-ranked Marshall 3-0 in the title game which saw junior ace right-hander Spencer Chirpich one pitch away from a perfect game as he gave up a two-out single in the bottom of the seventh. He threw 81 pitches, 60 strikes.
Chirpich is 5-0 with an impressive 0.78 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 36 innings. He also plays shortstop and is hitting .393 with 33 hits and 16 RBIs.
Luke Becker, senior second baseman, is Fairmont's offensive catalyst. He leads the team in hitting (.542), home runs (9), hits (45) and RBIs (37). On the mound, he is 7-0 with a 1.89 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 37 innings. He has been selected to play in the Minnesota Baseball Coaches Association All-Star Series June 20-21.
Also on the mound for the Cardinals is Clayton Maakestad who is 5-0 with a 2.40 ERA and 26 strikeouts.
"They've got a good No. 1 in Chirpich, but I'm betting we don't see him," said Janzen. "They'll probably use him after they play Aitkin so we'll probably see Becker, but I don't know. I'm uncertain who we will start, but I'm leaning toward our junior Jake Lynn."
"If we hit like we have been, we should be pretty good," said Lynn. "Hopefully, we can shut them down. Our defense has been playing pretty good too."
Waletich, a sophomore, is second on the team in hitting with a .438 batting overage and has 2 hits and 23 RBIs. Third baseman Jay Ruen, the only other senior on the squad, is hitting .333 with 28 hits and is second in RBIs with 30.
Also batting over .300 are second baseman Peter Monsen (.393), outfielder Nathan Gillis (.353) and catcher Ben Abel (.333).
The only loss of the season for the Cardinals was in their season opener, 3-1 to New Ulm, which they later avenged with a 14-3 drubbing May 5.