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One for the books

Jordan Smith, playing on his high school field, heads for first base leading off the second inning Thursday. He beat out an infield hit for the first-ever Stingers hit and later in the inning scored the new team in the Northwoods League's first run before a full house at Bill Taunton Stadium. The St. Cloud River Bats' catcher is J.C. Casey. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton1 / 2
Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Zach Rowles, right, and Nate Johnson, center, are congratulated by Willmar Stingers bat boy Brady Posch after Johnson's fly out to center field scored Rowles with the second run of the second inning against the St. Cloud River Bats Thursday at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.2 / 2

WILLMAR -- If there remained doubt something new was shaking in town this summer, a crackling fireworks show over Baker Field last night was another wake-up call.

A dazzling display of pyrotechnics worthy of the Fourth capped the Willmar Stingers' debut in the Northwoods League on Thursday night, a 5-3 loss before an announced crowd of 1,547.

The fireworks and the night ended with loud applause from perhaps a thousand still on hand at the end of a three-hour baseball game.

It was certainly the largest crowd by far at Bill Taunton Stadium, outdrawing a Northwood's game here in 2006 featuring the Alexandria Beetles by about 300 fans.

This many fans had not sat for a baseball game in Willmar in nearly 60 years when semi-pro baseball would attract thousands on a weekend evening to the park on Willmar Avenue where the football stadium now sits.

"What a great atmosphere," said Stingers' catcher Nate Johnson, out of Pepperdine University near Los Angeles. "It's fun playing in front of so many fans. It's going to be an awesome summer."

The River Bats outhit the Stingers nine to seven. Willmar got all three of its runs in the second.

Jordan Smith legged out the Stingers' first hit and scored the first-year franchise's first run. The 2009 Willmar graduate, who set hitting records with St. Cloud State this spring, also singled sharply to left, finishing 2-for-4.

Paul Molitor, the Hall of Fame hitter from St. Paul, threw out the first pitch. He also signed autographs below the stadium before and after.

The River Bats scored a pair of runs off Stingers' starter Roy Meter in the first. The Nebraska-Kearney junior pitched into the fifth inning before giving way to Jayson Huett.

The Stingers got to Bats' starter and winner Jason Van Skike for all seven of their hits in the first five innings. Matt Chaffee and Joe Kurrasch, a pair of lefties, split the final four innings and did not allow a hit.

Isaac Ballou, a freshman outfielder from Marshall University, and second baseman Carlos Leyva, who is from Los Angeles, joined Smith with two hits apiece.

St. Cloud shortstop Steve Nyisztor, a freshman out of Rutgers, went 3-for-4 in the cleanup spot.

The same two teams play again tonight starting at 7:05.