The road to the 1995 state championship for the Brainerd Warriors started in the 1994 season.
Down 11-1 to Little Falls in the subsection finals, the Warriors rallied to win 15-14.
“I remember we were one out away from getting 10 runned,” former Warrior head coach Lowell Scearcy said. “We came back and won the ball game and then we won the second one 6-4. I think that could have spurred us on.”
The Warriors then beat Moorhead twice in the section finals to reach the 1994 state tournament, an experience that helped the ‘95 team.
“We got consolation (in ‘94),” 1995 Brainerd graduate Wade Haapajoki said. “We had multiple returners coming back in 1995 and when we got the state tournament the next year we knew exactly what it was like. That 11-1 comeback was huge for Brainerd baseball and the effects it had.”
The leadership of the ‘94 team carried over to the ‘95 team as the seniors were committed to making it back to the state tournament.
“The class of ‘94 had some very good leaders,” former Brainerd assistant coach Tim Martin said. “Dan DeChaine and Derek Shemck were very good leaders and they were key components to that successful ‘94 team. Winning that (Little Falls) game made them think we can win anytime, anywhere against anybody.”
The 1995 season did not get off to a great start for the Warriors. They dropped two games in a tournament in Edina, including a 10-0 loss to Cretin-Derham Hall for a 3-3 record.
“I remember coach Scearcy looking at us and kind of calling us out,” Haapajoki said of the slow start to the ‘95 season. “We thought we were going to waltz in because we were Brainerd and teams were going to rollover.”
Scearcy remembers another distraction during the early season tournament.
“It was prom day,” he said. “Keith Peterson, my assistant coach, brought a van along to get the prom guys back in time, so they took off and that was the turning point of the season.”
The Warriors then rattled off 20-straight wins to claim the Class 2A title.
Brainerd beat Fergus Falls 9-1 and 4-2 to reach state for the second year in a row. Scearcy remembers the team being ready during the week of the state tournament at Midway Stadium in St. Paul.
“Everything worked out perfectly,” Scearcy said. “We happened to play the night game three days in a row and the weather was perfect.”
In the state quarterfinals, the Warriors beat Forest Lake 7-2 behind a complete game by senior righthander Tony Whitlock. The semifinals would be a rematch against C-DH.
“We had a group of guys who just had fun,” said Josh Smith, who was one of the senior captains along with Jake Vincent. “We definitely came in with the mindset that we were good enough to win it. We knew that after not losing a game after that tournament we were pretty solid.”
In the bottom of the seventh, with the score tied 4-4 and a runner on third, C-DH walked Haapajoki intentionally to pitch to designated hitter Todd Anderson.
“The first pitch was a hanging curveball,” Scearcy said. “And he hit into left field for a basehit and that was the ballgame. I remember it just like it was yesterday.”
In the championship game against Rosemount, the game was tied 3-3 in the top of seventh with a runner in scoring position. Rosemount walked the number three hitter Smith to pitch to Haapajoki.
He found himself down in the count 0-2 to start the at-bat.
“The guy they brought in was throwing gas,” Haapajoki said. “Of course the first pitch I watch goes right down the pipe. The next pitch I was late, I mean he was throwing BBs.”
Haapajoki thought on the 0-2 pitch he would see another fastball. Instead he got a breaking ball and hit it the other way to drive in the go-ahead run.
“I threw the bat out, hit it between first and second and the next thing I know I’m hugging coach Peterson at first knowing we got the go-ahead run,” Haapajoki said.
Whitlock shutdown Rosemount in the bottom of the seventh. The final out was a lazy fly ball to right field caught by Smith.
“He’s probably still got it,” Scearcy said. “I don’t remember that ball getting to the dugout.”
Smith won’t forget catching the last out, but remembers how good the team chemistry was more than single moments.
“We had a team that filled their role whatever that was,” Smith said. “We had guys who could steal a base, guys who could drop a bunt down if we needed them too, could hit a home run if it was needed and things like that. Of course, I’ll never forget catching the last out of the game.”
The 1995 Warriors were senior heavy. Scearcy recalls the only underclassman to start was Jade O’Brien at shortstop. On the mound, Brainerd used four pitches the entire year.
Whitlock was the workhorse and went 9-2 with 66 1/3 innings pitched, 64 strikeouts and posted a 1.27 ERA. He got the win in two state games to earn him a spot on the MSHSL’s Class 2A All-Tournament Team.
Lefthander Mike Shogren went 5-0 and led the team in strikeouts with 68 in 59 1/3 innings. Shogren got the win in the semifinals game against CD-H and also picked off a runner.
“We picked a runner off first with a play that coach Peterson had put in having been a left-handed pitcher himself,” Scearcy said. “I don’t know how many times it worked for us, but there was none bigger than that semifinals game.”
Luke Weiland was a sophomore during the ‘95 season and got the start in the championship game against Rosemount. He lasted 2 1/3 before handing it over to Whitelock who pitched the rest.
Junior Jeff Barrett was the hard throwing closer who posted a 2.63 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 24 innings.
At the plate, O’Brien led the team with 38 hits and a .458 average and also earned all-tournament team. In ‘96, O’Brien earned All-State honors as a senior and the Warriors nearly went back-to-back falling to C-DH in the Class 2A finals.
Smith led the team with six home runs and 31 RBIs. He also batted .373 with 31 hits.
It was Haapajoki who earned MVP honors by the team. The first baseman tallied 26 hits with a .329 average. He drove in 25 RBIs with the biggest one winning the state championship.
“Wade was probably as good a clutch player as we ever had,” Scearcy said. “He was really good when the chips were down.”
Anderson, who knocked in the game-winning run in the semifinals, hit for a .313 average with 20 RBIs.
The Warriors claimed six All-Central Lakes Conference spots in ‘95 with Haapajoki, Smith, O’Brien, Whitlock, Al Balsley (who was the most improved player on the team) and Justin Kieffer.
Of the seniors, seven played college baseball. Smith played at Mankato State, Haapajoki and Anderson played at St. Cloud State and Vincent, Shogren, Balsley and Aaron Eide started at Minot State — Eide transferred to North Dakota and Balsley to Bemidji State.
Smith is now the principal at Pillager elementary school and Haapajoki teaches special education at Brainerd High School along with being an assistant girls basketball coach.
“That was our first state tournament championship,” Scearcy said. “Our other championship was five years later, and sometimes I get them mixed up a little bit. It was a fun group of guys.”
1995 Brainerd Warriors baseball
Coaches: Lowell Scearcy (head coach), Keith Peterson, Tim Martin, Jay Sannes
Captains: Josh Smith and Jake Vincent
Highlights: State champions and 20-game winning streak
Team MVP: Wade Haapajoki
Team Most Improved: Al Balsley
Team Golden Glove: Wade Haapajoki and Justin Kieffer
Coaches award: Joe Browning
All-CLC: Josh Smith, Wade Haapajoki, Al Balsley, Tony Whitlock, Justin Kieffer, Jade O’Brien