Shortly before the Section 6AAA final between Willmar and top-seeded Benilde-St. Margaret's, Cardinals head coach Tom DeBoer chatted with first baseman Jack Baumgart's dad, Dave.
"He said, 'This is starting to feel a lot like District 5,' and I told him I agreed," DeBoer said following Willmar's win that clinched a spot in the Class AAA state tournament. "This is a special group that has been through a lot and knows what it takes to win."
Post 1639 knocked off Alexandria to earn a spot in the VFW State Tournament in 2016 and now Willmar is hoping to top their northern rivals in a game with state tournament implications again.
Willmar, the tournament's No. 5 seed, drew No. 4 Alexandria for their Class AAA quarterfinal, which is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at Siebert Field on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. This is Willmar's first trip to the state tournament since 1987 while Alexandria is back for the second year in a row after breaking a 42-year drought of their own. Willmar won the 1987 state tournament with a come-from-behind 5-4 victory against Hopkins and placed second in it's only other trip to the big dance in 1974.
Alexandria took fourth place last year, winning the opening game against St. Thomas Academy 7-2 but losing to Hibbing 8-7 in the semifinal and 10-9 to Marshall in the third place match.
Alexandria (15-6) swept Willmar (13-6) this season with a 3-0 win to start the season and a 6-4 win in the most recent meeting May 10. Despite the 0-2 record, Willmar is hungry for another chance in what senior pitcher and third baseman Caleb Ditmarson calls a revenge game.
"After we lost to Alexandria at home I know we talked about how we wanted to beat them really bad and I told the guys, 'Well, there's only one place we'll get to play them again and that's at the state tournament,'" Willmar senior first baseman Jack Baumgart said. "It just so happened that we're playing them now."
The history between these two teams go beyond simply this year. Twelve current Willmar Cardinals played for Post 1639 in the 2016 and Alexandria's team also looks pretty similar to the roster from two years ago.
"We've been playing these guys our whole lives, we know that they've got a couple of good players but I think we are more of a team," Willmar shortstop Jon Broman said. "We'll get through them."
Right-handed pitcher Brock Anderson is bound for North Dakota State University, but he's currently the star for Alexandria. He overwhelmed nearly every opponent he faced this season, striking out 56 batters in 29-1/3 innings pitched. He posted a 4-0 record with a 0.95 earned-run average. When he wasn't on the mound, he was dominating other pitchers with a .444 batting average and a home run with 18 runs batted in.
Anderson is the likely starter for Alexandria but their No. 2 has plenty of ability, as well. Carter Stockert was also 4-0 from the mound, striking out 45 batters in 29-2/3 innings with a 1.41 ERA.
Anderson tossed a one-hitter against Willmar in the first game of the season.
Pitching has been Alexandria's calling card this season, posting a team ERA of 2.65. As impressive as that number is, Willmar has been even more lights-out with a 1.96 team ERA. Willmar's three-man starting rotation features seniors Caleb Ditmarson (1.48 ERA, 37 strikeouts in 33 innings pitched) and Brady Bauman (3-1 with a 1.633 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 30 innings pitched) and junior Bryan Weidemann (5-0 with a 1.581 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 31 innings pitched).
Ditmarson will get the ball to start Thursday's game and it's a spot he has imagined for years and planned for the past few months. After seeing Willmar's gymnastics and wrestling teams receive the full send-off for the state tournament this winter, Ditmarson realized he wanted the baseball team to have that same treatment.
"So I put a reminder on my iPhone and it was at 10 p.m. every night and it just said "State Baseball" for the last four months," Ditmarson said. "It reminded me to do a little extra that the other team wouldn't do with working out or the mental state of the game. ... I told the guys about it last month and we were at the section finals and I changed it to "State Champions" and that's the goal now to get there."
"It's been a fun ride so far."