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Amateur Baseball: A long-awaited return for the Willmar Rails

Back at state for the first time since 2003, Willmar opens the Class C amateur baseball tournament Sunday against Clinton

Baseball roundup
Willmar Rails pitcher Patrick Courtney fires off a throw during a Region 4C elimination game against the Paynesville Pirates on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022 at Green Lake Diamonds in Spicer.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
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MIESVILLE — Patrick Courtney admits that the nerves hit him hard as the Willmar Rails were one game away from clinching a state berth in the Class C state amateur baseball tournament.

Courtney is one of only two Willmar players — along with Jordan Steffer — that has previously played at state. Courtney made it both as a member of the New London-Spicer Twins and, with the Rails, as a draftee for the Paynesville Pirates last season. Steffer previously made state with the Howard Lake Orphans.

“I looked over at Mark Owens when we were playing against Starbuck and said to him, ‘I might throw up,’” Courtney said. “I was so nervous. I threw seven innings in the previous game and I wasn’t going to pitch the next game. But I was so stressed out. … When (Aaron) Ver Steeg came up to pitch for Starbuck, no one knew who he was besides me. He played pro baseball with the (Fargo)-Moorhead RedHawks, and I don’t think anyone even knew a thing about that.”

Battling through two of Region 4C’s top pitchers — Atwater’s Josh Kingery and Ver Steeg — the young Willmar squad was able to get the region’s third seed and earn the team’s first state tournament berth since 2003.

After a 19-year hiatus, the Rails open the Class C tournament at 11 a.m. Sunday in Miesville against the Clinton Cards.

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060422.S.WCT.Willmar Rails base Jayden Dierenfeld.JPG
The Willmar Rails' Jayden Dierenfeld grins after being awarded first after being hit by a pitch during an exhibition game against the St. Joseph Joes on Friday, June 3, 2022 at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

“The guys were ecstatic and I don’t even have the words for how I felt,” said Willmar manager Dustin Overcash. “These five years have been a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into this team to get back to being a contender not only in (the Corn Belt) League but now in our region.”

Before the Rails make the trek to Jack Ruhr Field in Miesville, a town in Dakota County south of Hastings and west of Red Wing, Courtney and Steffer are trying to get the team’s fresh faces ready for what’s to come.

“The crowd will definitely get under your skin,” Steffer said. “I mean, there’s a lot of people that we don’t normally have. So just trying to hone in on the game and not focus too much on what the crowd is reacting to.”

During a team meeting this week, it dawned on Courtney how new this experience is for the bulk of the team.

“We had a get-together and the guys were confused why we weren’t hitting at the field (in Miesville) and why we’re hitting at Hastings,” Courtney said. “Little logistical things. It’s fun to share that knowledge, but holy crap, they don’t know how this works. It’s been fun to teach them.”

Little is known about their first-round opponent. Clinton was the two seed out of Region 9C, which features teams from the Land O’Ducks League. Steffer was college teammates at Minnesota-Morris with one of the Cards’ draftees, Chandler Erickson from the Chokio Coyotes.

“We’re going in like this: This is going to be a good team and we’re going to do our best to beat them,” Overcash said.

Courtney will start the game, hoping to use that previous state experience to control the game from the bump.

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StefferDP.jpg
Jordan Steffer, second baseman of the Willmar Rails, converts a double play in the first inning against the Sacred Heart Saints on Friday, July 8, 2022, at Baker Field.
Michael Lyne / West Central Tribune

“Patrick Courtney is a born leader. And since he came back to Willmar last year, I can’t say enough good things about Patrick with his experience playing in college (at Concordia-St. Paul) and amateur baseball,” Overcash said. “With the experience of playing in the state tournament, he’s perfect to have on this team. The guys listen to him. … Like, if I’m about to go for a mound visit, he’ll ask, ‘Dustin, can I go talk to him,’ and he takes the visit. He knows how to talk to these guys and he knows how to get good things out of them that maybe I couldn’t.”

Throughout the year, it’s been the Rails’ pitching that has propelled them out of the state drought. They’ll be aided at state by the drafting of Starbuck’s Matt Gruber, Milroy’s Nathan Deutz and Granite Falls’ Bennett Knapper.

“Our pitching has improved drastically this year,” Steffer said. “We got (Christian) Lessman, Patrick and Jayden (Dierenfeld) getting back in his groove. If you got good pitching and defense, you’re going to win a lot of ball games.”

While the nerves hit hard during the region tournament, the excitement is palpable for Courtney and the rest of the fresh-faced Rails.

“With the young group of guys we have, it’s exciting to be a part of this,” Courtney said. “This is my 11th year in town ball and I’m the old guy now. It’s really brought back more excitement getting to see these younger guys play. Every single kid on the team I’ve coached in football or baseball.”

Steffer added, “There’s a lot of excitement around the team and community. We’re locked into practice … and hopefully that can translate to Sunday.”

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