Column: In the front row

by Tom Coombe

The telephone rang frequently Monday, but the call 14 players, three coaches and dozens of fans were all waiting for never arrived.<BR><BR>First it was the office phone, then the cell phone, then the office phone again.<BR><BR>Friends, relatives, fellow baseball coaches on the other end. All offering congratulations to our Ely Legion baseball team for their second-place finish in the state tournament.<BR><BR>The calls were well appreciated but there was some thought, and a lot of hope, that organizers of last week’s Division II regional in Milbank, S.D., would also be dialing up.<BR><BR>State champions from Minnesota, Kansas, Wisconsin and North Dakota filled four of the eight slots in the double-elimination tournament, which started Thursday. The South Dakota champion opted out but the runner-up was tabbed to take their place. Host Milbank, which finished third in its state tourney, also had an automatic bid.<BR><BR>That left two vacancies and if past practice was any indication, the Ely boys had good reason to think they would get the chance to play another weekend.<BR><BR>State runners-up have often been invited to fill out the bracket. Minnesota sent its runner-up to regional play both in 2000 and 2001, while Wisconsin and Kansas have also sent more than one team in the past.<BR><BR>It appeared Ely was well positioned for an invitation.<BR><BR>Minnesota has more Legion baseball teams (350-plus) than all but one other state in the nation. Ely, at 28-2, was undefeated against Division II competition until the heartbreaking, 7-6 state title game loss to Sebeka.<BR><BR>Many of those 28 wins came against large-school competition, including a victory over Grand Rapids, which finished fifth in the Division I tournament.<BR><BR>Ely’s lineup featured Josh Mathson, the state’s home run king and one of the stars of the state tournament. And few pitchers were more impressive than the Ely combination of Mathson and lefty Tim Scott.<BR><BR>Even the intangibles seemed to favor Ely. At the state tourney, no team had a larger or more vocal following of fans. Most were sure to follow to South Dakota. Ely also hosted the Central Plains event in 2000 and is in line to host it again next summer.<BR><BR>But early morning turned to mid-morning and then early afternoon and the invitation had not yet arrived.<BR><BR>Then came the stunner: an e-mail and subsequent news release that listed the pairings for the tournament. <BR><BR>Ely, despite its record, state tournament showing and intangibles, was not invited.<BR><BR>Four teams from the host state, none of whom won the state championship and one that didn’t even qualify for state play, were.<BR><BR>On the surface, well beneath the surface too, it seems ludicrous.<BR><BR>With opening round matchups that featured four state champs against four South Dakota teams that didn’t go all the way, perhaps the name should be changed from the Central Plains championship to the South Dakota challenge.<BR><BR>It doesn’t help to cry foul, partly because there’s nobody to cry foul to.<BR><BR>The Division II regional is still in its infant stages, less than a decade old. And unlike Division I, which has eight region tournaments, a World Series to follow and well-established procedures for picking regional teams, Division II is held together by a loose alliance of the participating states and no formal process for coming up with the required eight teams.<BR><BR>The folks in Milbank decided against looking beyond their borders to complete the tournament field. The tournament field would have been deeper by picking another runner-up or two, especially one such as Ely that lost in a single-elimination state final, but the hosts decided to go in another direction.<BR><BR>And so an extraordinary season for Ely has come to a seemingly premature end.<BR><BR>We all felt that there was another chapter to be written in the story of the 2004 squad, but instead the book was closed on a sunny August afternoon in Dundas after a whale of a championship game.<BR><BR>And what a story it was. An opening-night win at Marble kicked off a 19-game unbeaten streak that included three tournament championships and wins over many high-caliber opponents.<BR><BR>There were comebacks and blowouts. Stellar defense and dominant pitching. And home runs, 18 of them in fact, from Mathson.<BR><BR>The streak ended on a Sunday afternoon in Soudan, but the guys picked themselves up, won the second game of a doubleheader and started another streak that lasted until the state tournament.<BR><BR>Kevin Pope laid down bunt single after bunt single and turned more than his fair share of double plays.<BR><BR>Pitch around Mathson? Not so fast when you have Aaron Thom, who hit .500-plus and gunned down several runners from his home in centerfield.<BR><BR>Ben Barnes was steady at third and executed a perfect squeeze bunt when Ely needed it most in the state tourney win over Jackson. Nobody talked more from the outfield than Tony Carlson, who capped off a flawless season in right with a highlight-reel catch in the state semifinals.<BR><BR>David Urbas was an ironman behind the plate, and opposing base stealers were thrown out more often than not. On the mound, Josh Weckman won seven games and fooled hitters from Chisholm to Sartell. Clutch hitting? Joel Dostert provided it, driving in 26 runs and providing plenty of punch from the sixth spot in the order.<BR><BR>When the infielders threw high or low, first baseman Cory Lassi was there to bail them out. He scooped them up, hauled them in, and even found time to hit and fix the field.<BR><BR>The hardest jobs may have belonged to reserves Phil Brodeen, Jeff Kotzian, Kai Bowen and Jordan Richards. Their playing time paled in comparison to the starters, but their dedication and willingness to do whatever was asked did not go unnoticed.<BR><BR>There was no better pitcher at the state tournament than Scott, who fanned 12 Jackson batters and then came back on one day’s rest to shut down Sebeka in the championship game. Combining good tools with guts and passion, Scott came into his own this summer.<BR><BR>Much has been written, both here and elsewhere, about Mathson’s exploits during a phenomenal high school and Legion career. He lived up to his billing and then some at the state tournament, with towering home runs that keyed both wins, and a 10-strikeout performance on the mound against Benson. Every Mathson at bat was special and commanded attention, because you just never knew when he’d launch one 400 feet.<BR><BR>Contributing heavily to the record were assistant coaches Ray Podominick and Frank Ivancich, who gave their time, their energy and their insight for little or no compensation.<BR><BR>All teams form their own identity and this group quickly meshed, perhaps better than any Ely team that came before it. From four different towns, three different high schools and one community college, they shared their dedication to baseball, a willingness to work and desire to compete. There were no mail-it-in efforts.<BR><BR>This team, these 16 individuals, made coaching fun and provided a welcome break from the ‘real world.’ A night at the ballpark was a sure remedy for a bad day. Instead of creating headaches, they eased them.<BR><BR>That’s why there were young men and not-so-young men - some holding back tears and the rest shedding them - sprawled out on the grass at Dundas following the title game.<BR><BR>A dream was within reach but quickly snapped away. A ride that began in Little League and extended through the years was suddenly coming to an end.<BR><BR>The 28 wins, the two losses, the state runner-up and championship trophies tell just part of the story. Friendships were strengthened or formed. Memories were made that will last a lifetime.<BR><BR>Those folks in Milbank missed out on the opportunity to see a heck of a team, that had a heck of a season.<BR><BR>I was both fortunate and honored to be a part of it. <BR><BR>