Sacred Heart. How could your amateur baseball team help but be anything but blessed when it carries that name?
It wasn't so long ago that the team was struggling to win a few games every summer. Then younger area players - former high school stars who ventured off after graduation to the bigger cities -- began to filter back home. Some of the ones who settled back in Sacred Heart and signed on to play with the hard-luck, town-team nine came carrying some pretty heady hardball cred.
And where else but Sacred Heart could a team be fortunate enough to find out that the pastor at a local Lutheran church played pretty good ball. Then, when he left for a new parish, the pastor who got the call to replace him in the pulpit just so happens to be a pretty decent third baseman capable of holding down the No. 5 spot in the batting order?
Saints is, indeed, an apt nickname for a Cornbelt League team that is 25-6 and makes its fourth straight Class C State Amateur Baseball Tournament appearance on Saturday, against Pelican Rapids, at 5 p.m. in Brownton.
"It's definitely been a good few years for us," said Saints manager Andy Davis. "The guys have all played together the last three years and they all get along - that's the big thing. Everybody was born or went to high school 15 miles from Sacred Heart."
Baseball's been big, in general, in that part of the central Minnesota the last few years, highlighted by the seemingly constant Saints vs. Raymond rivalry.
Both Cornbelt teams are in the Class C tournament this year. The Saints defeated the Rockets 5-3 last weekend to win the Region 11C championship and the Rockets earned a berth with their runner-up finish. The teams have played seven times this year after playing five times last year, when both also made it to the state tournament.
It's a marked difference from Davis' first year as manager.
"We only won one or two games," he said. "Then we started getting some guys moving back. That really gave us a boost."
In the last four years, ace pitcher Jeremy Hinderks, first baseman Ross Hebrink and shortstop Ryan Hebrink returned from the Twin Cities. Right fielder Mike Johnson came back home from Wisconsin.
Hinderks played some ball with Winnipeg and Joliet in the independent Northern League, as did Ryan Hebrink, who played in Fargo-Moorhead and Schaumburg. Both also played amateur ball together in Eagan.
"I came back in 2008 and the team hadn't won a playoff game," said Hinderks, who will start against Pelican Rapids. "I said, 'Guys, we need to turn this thing around."
Players continued to gravitate toward the Saints. Left fielder Nate Hebrink is from Raymond, but wanted to play with cousins Ross and Ryan and he, too, joined the Saints. Designated hitter Tom Lippert also is a former Sacred Heart player who came back.
And when Pastor and former Saint Chad Walta left the area for Colorado, low and behold, his replacement, Pastor Mike Kuschel, was ready to be penciled in at third base. It is, after all, Sacred Heart.
Sprinkled into the mix are some young standouts from the high school team, like catcher Dakota Freiborg, pitcher Adam Loe and second baseman Tyler Kleinhuizen, Davis said.
"They've all been good additions," he said.
Hinderks said the team finally started to realize how good it was when they were able to venture outside the Cornbelt.
"Once we got out of the league, we knew we were pretty good," Hinderks said. "I think we underestimate how tough the league is."
Hinderks has been the team's top player, hitting .378 with 14 home runs and 43 runs batted in. On the mound, he's 8-3 with a 1.67 earned-run average and 98 strikeouts in 102.2 innings pitched.
Ryan Hebrink is hitting .323 with 7 homers and 20 RBI and Nate Hebrink is hitting .323 with 3 homers and 19 RBI.
Pitching has anchored the team through some rough offensive outings, Davis said.
Behind Hinderks, Loe has been outstanding, with a 7-1 mark, a 1.39 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 64.2 innings. Nate Hebrink is 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA.
"Every year we're adding a couple more guys," Hinderks said. "We've definitely grown in talent and in depth. I think this team we have now would have knocked the snot out of the team we had in 2008."
The Saints' offense lagged at times but was seemingly always backed up by solid pitching. During the league and region playoffs, the Saints' offense has taken off and the team appears ready to make a tournament run.
"Our pitching has been outstanding all season," Davis said. "That's been the biggest key for us. We're only giving up a couple of runs a game, and lately we're gotten the sticks going. We're going to try keep that going."