Northwoods Baseball: Third time's the charm for Stingers
WILLMAR -- It took three years and two second-place finishes, but the Willmar Stingers have made the playoffs.
Willmar, which entered Saturday's game with a half-game lead in the Northwoods League North Division, beat the Thunder Bay Border Cats 9-2.
The win over Thunder Bay, paired with a dramatic finish Saturday in which the Rochester Honkers rallied past St. Cloud with an eighth-inning grand slam, wrapped up the second-half North Division title for the Stingers.
Stingers' manager Matt Hollod said he'd been paying attention to the St. Cloud game on his phone in the dugout, but didn't find out the result until he got home and was on the phone with his girlfriend.
"She goes, 'No, Rochester just hit a grand slam,' " Hollod said. "I yelled down to (pitching coach Tyler) Shepple and we both started screaming.
"It's a great feeling. Usually I'm on a pretty even keel with things, don't get too high, don't get too low, but last night it was hard not to show a little emotion afterwards."
The Stingers' game Sunday was rained out, but with a 21-13 second-half record and a two-game lead over the 20-16 St. Cloud Rox, the final game was irrelevant.
The Stingers finished with a franchise-best 41-28 overall record, and will play Game 1 of the best-of-three series against the Mankato MoonDogs at 7:05 p.m. today at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. The winner of the series will advance to play the winner of the La Crosse Loggers-Wisconsin Woodchucks series in the South Division.
Hollod said Tanner Banks is the likely starting pitcher for Game 1.
Stingers' co-owner Ryan Voz said he's been with postseason teams before, but that this year is different.
"For (co-owner) Marc Jerzak and I, we've both been with teams that have made playoffs before, but as an owner of a team it's a little extra special for us to be able to put together a team to be as competitive as we can and give our fans the best baseball we can."
The Stingers will have their work cut out for them against a Mankato team that ran away with the North Division in the first half with a 28-7 record.
They will be working with a seven-man pitching staff: Banks, Scott Lieser, Kyle Fischer, Michael Hahn, Kody Gorden, Mark Lukowski and Hunter Dozier -- and Lukowski will only be available the first two games.
Hollod said Dozier, the Stingers starting shortstop, will also serve as the closer with normal closer Brady Anderson returning to school.
The lineup is in better shape, but has been hit hard by injuries.
Catcher Dillon Haupt has already been shut down, and Forrestt Allday and Mitch Rowan have been dealing with nagging injuries.
Hollod said he originally thought Allday and Rowan would have to be shut down, but both will likely play today, though not at 100 percent.
The rest of the Stingers' lineup is intact, including Dozier, Michael Suchy, Kenny Roberts, Corben Green, Zach Benson, Brennan Moore, Max Kuhn, Karl Sorensen, Garrett Fischer, Phil Pupillo and J.D. Dorgan.
The lineup was one of the best in the Northwoods League this season.
Allday set two single-season Northwoods League records with 77 walks and 68 runs scored. He also batted .324, had a .512 on-base percentage and stole 20 bases atop the Stingers' lineup.
No. 2 hitter Rowan, one of the few returning players from 2011, was strong across the board with a .293 average, 12 doubles, five home runs and 20 stolen bases.
Suchy and Roberts were two unexpected power sources in the heart of the order. Suchy, who struggled as a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast in the spring, hadn't hit a home run since his senior year of high school. He broke out in a big way for the Stingers, emerging as one of the top hitters in the league with a .349 average, eight home runs and 62 RBIs, while slugging .510 and getting on base at a .462 clip.
Roberts was also coming off a tough spring at Alabama but heated up in the summer with a Stingers' franchise-record 16 home runs. He batted .274 with 53 RBIs.
Green and Dozier had strong but inconsistent seasons with the bat, including a 20-game hitting streak by Green in June and July.
Hollod, an assistant coach at DeSales University (Pa.) during the schools year, said it's his first postseason as a head coach, but that he's excited for the players and fans.
"It's special for them and I'm happy for the guys that are here sticking it out," Hollod said. "The guys that are staying here are excited and we're going to give it our all and see what happens."