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Legion team hopes to be in familiar spot

Playing in the state tournament has become a welcome habit for Ely’s American Legion baseball players.Five times in the last seven years, including twice in its home ballpark, Ely has been among final eight Division II Legion squads in Minnesota.They hope to make it six-for-eight this weekend, when the 2004 event is held in Northfield and Dundas.After a 23-1 regular season, Ely had the top seed and the role of favorite in the Eighth District playoffs, held over the weekend at Veterans Memorial Field.And if all goes as expected, Ely will head for Northfield later this week and get set for a state quarterfinal game against the winner of the Second District, set for 4 p.m. Friday at Dundas.If Ely advances to state, they’ll be in a familiar position and may even see a few familiar foes.Since 1997, Ely has won the Eighth District title five times and has had several strong finishes at state, including a runner-up performance in 1998 and third-place showings in both 2001 and 2003.With all but three players back from the 2003 squad, Ely has been angling all summer for a return engagement at the state tournament.“That’s what we’re shooting for,” said Ely Head Coach Tom Coombe. “Our guys have been there before and they know what to expect. If we’re fortunate enough to make it, I think we can compete with anyone there.”Pitchers Josh Mathson (6-0), Tim Scott (6-0) and Josh Weckman (6-1) are all back and boast state tournament experience. Ely has played solid defense and has an imposing batting order headed by Mathson (.585, 15 HR, 42 RBI) and Aaron Thom (.521, 29 RBI).With 23 wins in 24 games, Ely has the best record of any Minnesota Division II team. But unlike Division I (for programs with high school enrollments over 400 students) the Division II (under 400) program has no state rankings or tracking process to gauge the top teams.But district play wound down last week around the state and it appears the state tournament will be loaded with talent.Whoever survived the Eighth District tournament at Ely is sure to have a tough foe Friday. The Eighth District is matched with the Second District in the opening round, and Pipestone (15-5) had earned a spot in the district finals. Also still alive in the district was Jackson, which appeared in the 2003 state tournament at Ely and won the high school Class AA state crown during the spring.Defending state champion Paynesville was still alive going into weekend district action, while New York Mills, the team Ely beat in the 2003 third-place game and the high school Class A runner-up this year, was one of the favorites in the Ninth District.Other Division II teams in position for state berths as the Echo went to press include Jordan (18-2) and Benson (15-2).“All eight teams will be good teams and in a single-elimination tournament, you not only have to play well, but you also have to get some breaks or get a favorable draw,” said Coombe. “If we make it, I think we have the pitching to last the weekend and hopefully our prior experience will help.”The season ends this weekend for all but one of the state tournament participants.The champion, however, will advance to the Central Plains Division II Regional, set for Aug. 12-15 at Milbank, S.D.

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