FAIRMONT - The towns of Roseau and Fairmont both are just 10 miles away from the border, that is, Canada and Iowa, respectively.
Now, the two high school baseball programs that are the furthest distance apart - 450 miles - will meet face-to-face for the first time ever in the Class AA state baseball tournament's quarterfinals at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud.
"I really don't know much about them (the Rams)," said Cardinal mentor Todd Sukalski, whose program makes its third consecutive state appearance, including a third-place finish in 2011, with a record-setting 24-3 mark. "I've looked at the scores of their games and who they've played. Roseau beat Fergus Falls twice to win their section (8), and we're very familiar with them (Fergus Falls) after having played a couple of close games with them during the last two state tournaments."
THREEPEATING — Members of the Fairmont baseball team making their third consecutive appearance in the Class AA state tournament Thursday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud include, front row (l-r): Michael Forster, Ross Wilken, Alek Borchardt, Ben Kain and Ben Gratz. Middle row: Christian Petschke, Kyle Guetter, Levi Becker, Andy Reiter, Sean Klein and Luke Becker. Back row: Ryan Noll, Jordan Voss, Jay Ruen, Brandon Brooks, Bryce Holm, Spencer Chirpich and Mitch Pfingsten. (Photo courtesy of Randy Chirpich/www.fairmontsports.com)
Indeed. Roseau head baseball coach Tracey Wensloff's Rams (20-5) ended Fergus Falls' three-year state run when 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior right-hander Ben Vatnsdal hurled a two-hit shutout to pace an 11-0 victory in the sectional championship game.
Leadoff batter Alex Strand and Justin Anderson each contributed three hits to the Rams' high-octane offensive performance, while Alex Ziegler and Jeremy Markstrom each supplied RBI singles.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Baseball Hub website, prior to the start of the postseason, the 6-2 Ziegler led Roseau in batting average (.443), home runs (5) and RBIs (21).
Anderson and Vatnsdal also provide power via two and one homer, respectively, with Anderson hitting at a .414 clip and Vatnsdal generating a club second-best 15 RBIs.
While the Rams produced double-figure runs to earn their first state baseball appearance since 2006, the three-pronged pitching staff of senior Logan Hulst, Anderson and Vatnsdal has combined for seven shutouts this season, including three during the playoffs.
Prior to the section tournament, both Hulst and Anderson had compiled 5-0 records in 41 1/3 and 31 1/3 innings of work, respectively.
Hulst had posted a miniscule ERA of 0.67 via a team-leading 64 strikeouts, while Anderson has assembled a 2.01 ERA and recorded 32 strikeouts.
Despite pitching 26 innings during the regular season, Vatnsdal proved a 'tough-luck hurler' with a 1-2 record and 22 strikeouts until delivering the pivotal state-qualifying shutout against Fergus Falls.
Ironically, a glance at Fairmont's offensive and pitching statistics proves a near mirror image of Roseau's pre-playoff numbers.
"Coming into this season, we knew that our defense would play a huge part in how successful we would be," said Sukalski, whose team has committed only 22 errors in 27 games this spring. "Of course, good pitching goes hand-in-hand with good defense, so we thought we were set with a couple of senior pitchers with experience coming back."
Injuries, however, took its early toll on the Cardinals' rotation, leaving Sukalski to opt for inexperienced and younger arms.
"It's hard to believe, but 93 percent of our innings have been by guys who had never pitched a varsity game before this season," said Sukalski. "We (coaching staff) anticipated that Chirp (freshman Spencer Chirpich) would be a good pitcher, but maybe not this soon.
"(Sophomore) Luke (Becker) has exceeded our expectations from a pitching standpoint, while (junior) Bryce (Holm) has developed into a solid pitcher for us."
Indeed. Holm tops the Cardinals' rotation with a 1.44 ERA and 40 strikeouts en route to a 4-2 record and two complete games in 39 innings of work. Luke Becker has compiled a 6-0 record and team-leading four complete games in a team-high 52 1/3 innings of work. The sophomore hurler also has notched 36 strikeouts and posted a 1.74 ERA.
Chirpich, however, has generated the team's most victories - seven in eight decisions - and a .177 ERA. The freshman ace has tossed three complete games and recorded 37 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings of work.
While Chirpich, Holm and Luke Becker have shouldered the majority of the pitching duties, senior right-hander Ben Kain returned to hurl a key sectional victory and could prove vital during a three-round state tournament series.
"Last year we used to slug our way to wins, but with the change in bats and personnel, we had to learn how to win close games," said Sukalski.
In addition to his young pitching staff, Sukalski has been pleasantly surprised by the addition of sophomore catcher Mitch Pfingsten to his roster this spring.
"We didn't know if he'd be on the varsity this season, but he's evolved into our starting catcher and cleanup hitter," Sukalski said in reference to Pfingsten. "He's turned into a good leader on the field in the way he works with our pitchers, too."
Pfingsten also carries the Cardinals' third-best batting average into the state quarterfinals, hitting at a .343 clip with 14 RBIs. He also shares the team lead with Ryan Noll with one homer each.
Junior jack-of-all-trades Levi Becker tops Fairmont in the majority of the hitting categories, including average (.398), hits (35), RBIs (21), doubles (7) and slugging (.523), while sharing the top spot in triples with younger brother Luke Becker with two each.
"Levi has played all nine positions this season. He's the guy we need who's versatile and talented enough to play every spot well," said Sukalski.
Chirpich tops the Cardinals with 26 runs scored to complement a .351 batting clip and 18 RBIs, Luke Becker carries a .306 batting average with 23 runs scored and 13 RBIs, while sure-handed senior first baseman Michael Forster and Noll have produced 15 and 14 RBIs, respectively. Forster generated two clutch RBIs in a 3-2, eight-inning sectional win over New Ulm in Game 1 of Fairmont's sectional doubleheader sweep, while Kain collected four hits during the two-game span.
So, what's Sukalski's breakdown of the eight-team Class AA state baseball field, that features four returning qualifiers, including 2011 champion St. Cloud Cathedral?
"Obviously, Cathedral's tough after winning state, and (Minneapolis) Washburn looks impressive with their numbers - low ERA, high batting averages and an undefeated record, but we're more focused on trying to beat Roseau in the first round for now," said Sukalski.
Holy Family Catholic (22-4) faces Cannon Falls (20-5) in the Class AA opener at 10 a.m., followed by Fairmont (24-3) versus Roseau (20-5) at 12:30 p.m. Thursday. Proctor (17-6) battles Minneapolis Washburn (25-0) in a 3 p.m. quarterfinal, followed by defending champion St. Cloud Cathedral (22-5) against Delano (18-7) in a 5:30 p.m. game.
The semifinals, consolation semifinals, consolation championship and third-place games will be held Friday in St. Cloud. The Class AA state championship will be held at 3 p.m. June 18 at Target Field in Minneapolis.