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Raymond feeling at home in Class C field ... sort of

BIRD ISLAND -- Even though host teams won't be participating in the 2010 State Amateur Baseball Tournament over the next three weekends, there will be some local flavor.

And the Raymond Rockets are counting on that as one of their weapons.

With Raymond only 12 miles southeast of Willmar and 33 miles from Bird Island, the Rockets are the closest team in this year's Class B & C tournaments and expect to see a lot of their fans at Saturday's first-round game against Region 15C champion Lake Henry at 5 p.m. in Bird Island.

"That makes a big difference for fan support," said Raymond manager Butch Steen. "We're looking forward to a great turnout for our game."

The Rockets (30-6), the Region 9C runners-up, haven't qualified for state since 2006, running into the buzzsaw of Jeremy Hinderks and the Sacred Heart Saints in the last few region tournaments.

Steen also said a change in the Region 9C format eliminated a second championship game for seeding, which cost the Rockets a chance to take the No. 1-seed from 9C.

Sacred Heart, which came back through the loser's bracket, beat Raymond 8-4 last weekend to earn the top spot.

"We feel bad that we didn't beat them in the last game," he said. "We were supposed to play that last game for seeding, but the region voted the last game out."

Other regions, like 15C -- which includes Lake Henry -- did the same.

Many of the names are still the same for the Rockets as when they went to the state tournament from 2004-2006. Jed Nelson leads the team with a .396 batting average, Mike Jeseritz has 54 hits and a .366 average, Kyle Knott has 11 home runs and 44 RBI and Jason Meyer has nine homers and 30 RBI.

Add to the mix Milroy slugger Matt Bauer, who has two home runs in 12 at bats, and college-age players like Tyler Steen (.389 average), Jordan Smith (.366) and Ben Ruter (.328), and the Rockets put a veteran team on the field without being too old.

"We have a good mix of the young and old," Steen said. "These guys have been through this for quite a few years."

Tyler Knott is the ace of the Rockets' staff. The right-hander posted an 11-1 record in 98 innings with a 1.10 ERA. He struck out 147 batters and walked only 11.

"He's probably one of the hardest throwers in the area," said Steen. "He's a veteran with an excellent fastball and curveball. He's a gamer. You put him on the mound and he's definitely tough to beat."

Tom DeBoer (6-1, 3.98 ERA), Zach Nelson (3-3, 2.75) and Jordan Smith (6-0, 1.48) have each logged at least 48 innings each, plus Milroy's Josh Hadley earned a win for Raymond in the region tournament, giving the Rockets a solid starting staff.

The winner of the game will play in Willmar at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 28. If the Rockets win, it's just like having another home game for their fans.