Legion playoffs set to begin in Ely

Post 248 looks to match high school team with trip to state, but daunting district foes stand in the way

by Nick Wognum
It was barely more than a month ago when Ely’s high school baseball team celebrated a section championship game victory and a berth in the state tournament.
A quest for a second trip to state begins Wednesday, when the Eighth District Division II American Legion playoffs begin in Ely, but a repeat performance figures to be quite a challenge for the local squad.
Post 248 is merely one of several contenders in a loaded tournament field, and the opposition is clearly more formidable than it was in the high school season, when Ely played in the smallest of the state’s four enrollment divisions.
Proctor, which advanced to state out of Section 7 in Class AA, may be the favorite in the eight-team double-elimination tournament, and the field is loaded with teams who played at the Class AA level in high school, including Taconite (Greenway), Esko, Moose Lake and Two Harbors.
Ely’s prime sectional foes during the high school season, Brookston (South Ridge) and Deer River, are likely to be the lowest-seeded teams in the Legion playoffs.
“It’s a whole different ball game during the summer,” said Ely Head Coach Tom Coombe. “We’re going to have to play awfully well to get through this tournament. There are several teams that could win it. I look at teams like Proctor, Taconite and even Moose Lake as the favorites.”
But while Ely is one of the smaller programs in the field, Post 248 has already shown this summer that it could make a splash during the postseason.
Ely (8-6) may have served notice last weekend, when it won three-of-four contests and tied for third place in the 11-team Sir G’s Midsummer Classic.
Included in that weekend run was a stunning, 8-7 upset of Proctor, which used ace pitchers Jon Aase and Jake Malec to no avail.
“That was as big of a win as we’ll have this year,” Coombe said of the victory over Proctor. “Player for player, Proctor is probably the most talented team in the district, and I think that game was a real confidence booster for our guys.”
Ely has offset the absence of several high school starters with players from neighboring high schools, with Northeast Range’s Kyle Durbin and Joe Wenzel, and Northwoods’ Darnell Goggleye stepping in and contributing immediately to the Ely lineup.
Goggleye is Ely’s leading hitter (.451) and got the pitching win in relief against Proctor, while Durbin has four wins on the mound and holds the leadoff spot in the batting order.
Add high school holdovers including catcher Gage Merhar, shortstop Andy Krunkkala (.329), outfielder Cole Kellogg and pitcher/infielder Dylan Kienitz, and Ely has a nucleus to give opponents cause for concern.
“We’ve had a short season and had to put a lineup together on the fly, but I like the way our guys have responded and competed,” said Coombe. “We’re playing at home, which is big, and if things fall into place we’ll have a shot to contend.”
Final seeding will be determined over the weekend, and Taconite had the inside track on the top spot after winning its first nine district contests.
Led by college freshman Pat Shea and senior outfielder Kole Kalisch, Taconite looks for its first state tournament berth since 2013 and has a potent offense.
Proctor, making its first appearance in Division II Legion Baseball, has an NCAA Division I (North Dakota State) recruit in Malec, the Duluth News-Tribune’s Player of the Year in Aase and a hard-throwing pitcher in Matt Morris.
The sleeper in the tournament could be Moose Lake, which has only won seven times in 23 contests but has played the most difficult schedule of any district team, playing in tournaments at Grand Rapids, Fargo, Virginia and Superior.
The Outlaws have a legitimate pitching ace in Chris Carlson and many of the same players who led Moose Lake to a district title and state runner-up finish last summer.
Esko is in the running for a high seed and is another Class AA program in the field, while Two Harbors has one of the district’s top pitchers in Easton Best. Both Brookston (1-7) and Deer River (0-9) are capable of a playoff upset despite their records.
“Any of the eight teams is capable of winning their first round game,” said Coombe. “That’s what makes this tournament interesting.”
Sir G’s Classic
Goggleye went four-for-four, including the game-winning double in the seventh, to cap Ely’s win over Proctor.
Kellogg had two hits in the same game, and Merhar worked the first five-and-two-thirds innings on the mound.
Merhar’s fifth-inning double plated Durbin and gave Ely a 2-1 win over Kenyon in the first round, and Durbin scattered nine hits as Ely beat Brookston 8-2 on Saturday night.
In Sunday’s semifinals, Cloquet scored early and downed Post 248 10-1.
Duluth Lakeview downed Pierz 3-2 in the semifinals and beat Cloquet 10-4 in the title game of the Sir G’s Classic.Legion playoffs set to begin in Ely

2016 Eighth District Division II
American Legion Baseball Playoffs
July 20, 22, 23, 24

Tournament Schedule
Four First Round Games
Two at Ely and two at Nashwauk
Ely game times 5:15 and 7:30 p.m.
(Wednesday is Veterans’ Night at Ely, with all
veterans gaining free admission, a free hot dog and free beverage)

Elimination Bracket Games, 10 a.m., 2 and 7 p.m.
Winners Bracket Games, 12:15 and 4:45 p.m.
One additional Elimination Bracket Game at Soudan

Saturday (July 23)
Elimination Bracket Games, 1:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Winners Bracket Final, 4 p.m.

Sunday (July 24)
Championship Game, 1:30 p.m.
Second Game if necessary, 6:30 p.m.

District champion advances to state tourney at LeSueur

• Tournament pairings to be finalized Sunday, will be posted online at elylegionbaseball.blogspot.com and on the Echo website at elyecho.com