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Rockets open Minnesota Class C tournament vs. Brandon-Evansville

After a disappointing tournament exit last season, the Raymond Rockets start their hunt for the 2011 Minnesota Class C state tournament title today against the Brandon-Evansville Bluedogs.

Raymond, the No. 2 seed in Class C Region 11 and the Bluedogs, the top seed in Region 16 will play their first-round game today at 7:30 p.m. in Brownton.

The Rockets are coming off a tough defeat in last year's state tournament, where they lost the third-place game in extra innings to Howard Lake. Overall in last year's tournament, they played six games and won four of them.

This season they are 20-10 overall and were 11-5 in the Cornbelt League.

Rockets manager Butch Steen said the key to this year's tournament will be pitching and defense.

The ace of the staff is University of Minnesota-Duluth star Jordan Smith, who will start Saturday's game.

"(Smith) has been outstanding," Steen said. "We're going into it with some good pitching."

Smith, who briefly played for the Willmar Stingers this year, put up a 1.21 ERA, only allowing eight earned runs all season. He struck out 46 batters in 59Zc innings.

The Rockets will also rely on pitchers Tyler Knott, (2.81 ERA, team-leading 66 strikeouts) and Zach Nelson (1.60 ERA, 48 strikeouts).

On the hitting side, Raymond's most dangerous hitter is first baseman Kyle Knott. He led the Rockets in most offensive categories in 2011, including home runs (4), batting average (.352), on-base percentage (.429) and slugging percentage (.574).

Other threats in the lineup include Mike Jeseritz (.279 average, .348 OBP, .320 slugging) and Smith (.321 average, .382 OBP, .449 slugging, two home runs).

The Rockets will lose some valuable firepower if they advance past the first game.

One of their best hitters is Butch's son, catcher Tyler Steen. After the first round of games, Tyler, who plays for North Dakota State, will be unable to play because of conflicts with the Bison's upcoming season.

"He's our leadoff hitter," Butch said. "He's big. He's definitely one of the best catchers in the state, there's no doubt about that."

Tyler Steen batted .339 for the Rockets with a .415 OBP and .477 slugging percentage.

Butch Steen said the Rockets' hitting has struggled but that it has improved as the season has gone on.

"We just didn't have our lineup all here at once. Now we've had everybody here and everybody's pretty healthy right now," Butch said. "If we can get consistent, work the count and make (the pitcher) pay for his mistakes, I think we'll be OK."

The winner will advance to the next round and play the winner of the Spring Hill-Big Lake game on Aug. 27 in Glencoe.

Ben Brewster

Ben Brewster covers the Willmar Stingers and other area sports, as well as laying out the daily sports section cover for the West Central Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @benbrewster.

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