Thrill of victory, agony of defeat

by Nick Wognum

They came oh-so-close.<BR><BR>Ely’s American Legion baseball team had a magnificent run through the Division II State Tournament but came up just short, falling 7-6 to Sebeka in a captivating Aug. 8 title game at Dundas.<BR><BR>Behind the big bat of slugger Josh Mathson and the pitching of Tim Scott, Ely rallied past Jackson 7-5 in the Aug. 6 quarterfinals.<BR><BR>The next night, Mathson was a one-man wrecking crew, drilling a tape-measure three-run homer in the first and dominating with 10 strikeouts on the mound in a 3-0 semifinal victory over Benson.<BR><BR>And in the finals, it looked as if Ely just might win its first state Legion crown.<BR><BR>Sebeka stormed out to a 6-0 lead and took a 7-4 margin into the seventh, only to see Ely score twice and put runners at the corners with two outs.<BR><BR>But Post 248 wasn’t able to get one more big hit, and reliever Brad Lusti ended the game with a strikeout and preserved a win that sent Sebeka (22-4) on to last week’s regional tournament at Milbank, S.D.<BR><BR>Ely finished 28-2, had the best record in program history and even came home with the sportsmanship trophy, but the dejection at the end of the championship game was visible for all to see.<BR><BR>“It was a tough one, that’s for sure,” said Ely Head Coach Tom Coombe. “To come so close only to lose, that was very difficult for the players and the coaches too.<BR><BR>“They had a tremendous state tournament and a tremendous season. They’ll be able to look back a year from now or five years from now and see that, but that won’t take any of the sting away from losing.”<BR><BR>Ely suffered another loss on Monday, when pairings for the Central Plains Regional were announced.<BR><BR>Since state champions filled just four of the eight slots in the regional bracket, Ely was hoping for an at-large bid and a second chance, but that chance evaporated when tournament host Milbank opted to fill the regional with other South Dakota teams (see related story).<BR><BR>Sebeka’s Zach Etter won most valuable player honors for the state tournament, collecting two pitching wins - including one in the finals against Ely - and going seven-for-nine for the weekend with a three-run homer in the title contest.<BR><BR>But Ely had two players - Mathson and Scott - that gave Etter a run for his money.<BR><BR>Mathson picked up his 17th and 18th home runs of the season during the tournament and both were pivotal in Ely’s wins.<BR><BR>His fifth-inning grand slam brought Ely back from a 5-0 deficit and ignited the comeback against Jackson. <BR><BR>Mathson was in command against Benson, fanning 10 batters and tossing a four-hitter, while putting Ely on the board in the bottom of the first with a three-run shot that cleared the right field fence by at least 40 feet.<BR><BR>Scott got stronger against Jackson, overcoming a shaky start to finish with an eight-hitter and 12 strikeouts, including eight in the last three innings. He came back in the finals, on just one day’s rest, to throw four-and-two-thirds innings, giving up an unearned run and only two hits.<BR><BR>“There shouldn’t be any doubt that those two guys are outstanding players,” said Coombe. “Josh’s home run turned the whole game around against Jackson and he probably was the most feared hitter in the tournament. And Timmy turned a lot of heads over the weekend. If college scouts weren’t aware of him before the tournament, they sure are now. He was a warrior.”<BR><BR>Here’s a game-by-game synopsis of Ely’s state tournament contests.<BR><BR>Ely 7, Jackson 5<BR><BR>Ely had a 26-1 record heading into the tournament, but its opponent’s background may have been even more daunting.<BR><BR>Jackson was 19-4, featured University of Minnesota recruit Jon Hummel and had won the state Class AA high school championship in the spring.<BR><BR>For four innings, it looked like Jackson would cruise.<BR><BR>After Hummel reached on an error in the first, Jackson stringed together three hits, including a two-run double by Bill Kruppiak that made it 3-0. Scott escaped further damage, recording a bases-loaded strikeout with two outs.<BR><BR>Jackson then added two more runs in the third on hits by Derek Anderson and Jake Sirovy, a wild pitch, a passed ball and a groundout.<BR><BR>Meanwhile, Ely couldn’t get anything started against Kruppiak.<BR><BR>The Jackson starter cruised through the first four innings, allowing just one hits and coaxing eight pop-ups in 12 outs.<BR><BR>That all changed in the fifth. Ben Barnes’ single was sandwiched between two strikeouts, and both Kevin Pope and Scott drew two-out walks.<BR><BR>That set the stage for Mathson, who launched a home run that cleared the 15-foot high centerfield fence and landed in a river behind the ballpark.<BR><BR>All of a sudden, Ely trailed 5-4 and had new life.<BR><BR>“If a game can turn around on one swing of the bat that one sure did,” said Coombe. “Kevin and Tim’s at-bats were big because that set the table for Josh. And there was no doubt at all once the ball left his bat.”<BR><BR>That fired up both the Ely team and the delegation of more than 70 fans that made the trip south.<BR><BR>Scott struck out the side in the bottom of the fifth, and Ely tied it in the sixth against Hummel, who came on in relief.<BR><BR>After Lassi walked, Ely bunted four straight times.<BR><BR>Joel Dostert had a bunt single and Josh Weckman moved both runners over. With one out, Barnes executed a perfect suicide squeeze to score the tying run. David Urbas tried to bunt his way on with two outs, but Hummel made a tremendous play, coming from the mound to field the bunt and tagging runner Tony Carlson as he slid into home.<BR><BR>Scott again set down Jackson in the sixth and Ely pulled ahead in the seventh. An infield hit by Scott started things, and Mathson ripped a line drive down the right field line to move Scott to third.<BR><BR>Aaron Thom then hit a ground ball to short, and Scott beat the throw home to put Ely on top. Cory Lassi’s single then gave Ely a 7-5 lead.<BR><BR>Scott struck out the first two batters in the seventh, but two walks and a hit later, Jackson had loaded the bases. Ely kept with Scott, and he fanned Kruppiak to end the game and send Ely into the semifinals.<BR><BR>Ely 3, Benson 0<BR><BR>The semifinals had nowhere near the drama of the opening round game, perhaps much to Ely’s liking.<BR><BR>After Mathson set down the side in the top of the first, Ely got things going with a bunt hit by Pope and a single down the left field line by Scott.<BR><BR>Up stepped Mathson, who turned on a hanging curve ball and sent it well over the right field fence.<BR><BR>“There was no doubt about that one, either,” said Coombe. “All they could do was watch it go over the fence. I don’t think we could have started the game any better.”<BR><BR>That was about it for either offense in the game.<BR><BR>Benson pitcher Wes Stettner settled down and blanked Ely over the next five frames, aided by double-plays in the third, fourth and sixth stanzas.<BR><BR>Benson never advanced a runner to third base. The team from west-central Minnesota put two runners on with no outs in the fourth, but Stettner bunted into a double play and Mathson got the next batter to go down looking.<BR><BR>That was the theme for the night as Mathson ended four straight innings - the second through the fifth - with called third strikes.<BR><BR>In the seventh, Benson threatened with a single and a walk. Mathson responded by fanning the next two batters and getting the final out on a ground ball to short.<BR><BR>Mathson finished with a four-hitter, 10 strikeouts and four free passes<BR><BR>Scott had three of Ely’s six hits.<BR><BR>Sebeka 7, Ely 6<BR><BR>Standing in front of Post 248’s path to the state title was a formidable Sebeka squad.<BR><BR>With player from both Sebeka and Menahga, the central Minnesota team had marched through its district tourney, outscoring its foes 32-3.<BR><BR>After a 3-2 win over Stewartville in the quarterfinals it pounded Jordan 12-2 in the semis.<BR><BR>The championship game looked early on that it may be a rout.<BR><BR>Etter singled in a run in he first to make it 1-0, and Sebeka scored five times in the second.<BR><BR>Tony Meech’s two-run homer to left gave Sebeka a 3-0 lead, and hits by Andrew Pederson and Seth Davis set the stage for Etter, who delivered a three-run bomb for a six-run margin.<BR><BR>Sebeka threatened again in the third, but Scott was called in relief and got out of a jam, stranding two runners.<BR><BR>Ely got on the board and back into the game in the bottom of the fourth.<BR><BR>Scott, who reached base eight times in three games, was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning.<BR><BR>Mathson doubled to right and Thom was next with a single to left made it 6-1. A walk to Lassi chased starting pitcher Shane Milbrandt and brought in Etter.<BR><BR>He got Dostert out on a sacrifice fly, but Mathson scored from third on the play. Weckman then reached on an error, scoring Thom and making it 6-3. Barnes brought Ely closer with a run-scoring double, but Etter retired the next two batters.<BR><BR>Scott picked off a runner to escape trouble in the sixth, but Sebeka scored what proved to be an important run in the seventh.<BR><BR>Milbrandt doubled to lead off the inning, and he later scored on a throwing error to give Sebeka a three-run lead.<BR><BR>Sebeka would need the extra run.<BR><BR>Ely didn’t go down in the seventh without a fight.<BR><BR>With one out, Scott and Mathson reached on free passes and Etter then gave way to Lusti.<BR><BR>Thom singled to load the bases, but Lusti came back with a strikeout to put his team just one out away.<BR><BR>Dostert kept Ely alive with a two-run single to left, but Lusti recorded another strikeout to save the win and give his team the state crown.<BR><BR>Weckman took the loss for Ely, yielding six runs in two-and-one-third innings. Scott worked the rest of the way.<BR><BR>At the plate, Dostert had two hits and three runs batted in while Thom went three-for-four.