WILLMAR — For an amateur baseball team, the Willmar Rails are young.
Their oldest player is 25-year-old Tanner Thunstedt. The Rails’ top two starting pitchers graduated from high school last year and this year.
Manager Dustin Overcash has credited infielder Jordan Steffers, 24, with providing veteran leadership.
That youth, Overcash hopes, will help the Rails as they prepare for the Corn Belt league playoffs.
Willmar opens play at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bill Taunton Stadium. The sixth-seeded Rails play the seventh-seeded Granite Falls Kilowatts in the first round of the double-elimination league playoffs.
Play moves to Sacred Heart on Saturday and Sunday.
The other first-round Corn Belt playoff game has eighth-seeded Wabasso playing at 7:30 p.m. Friday at fifth-seeded Sacred Heart.
There’s a losers’ bracket elimination game at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by a winners’ bracket game at 4 p.m. The 1:30 p.m. winner and the 4 p.m. loser play at 7:30 p.m.
The championship bracket is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, with a second game to follow if necessary.
The winner advances to the Region 4C tournament Aug. 7-9 and Aug. 14-16 at Starbuck.
The Corn Belt’s top four teams in the regular season already have secured regional berths. They are: the Milroy Yankees, Raymond Rockets, Marshall A’s and Bird Island Bullfrogs.
Those four join the top three teams from the County Line League.
The County Line’s fourth-place team from the playoffs will play the fifth-seeded team from the Corn Belt at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7.
At stake in the regional are three berths in the state Class C tournament in Springfield and Milroy.
“As long as we do our job, play defense, get timely hitting and not make stupid mistakes that have hurt us, we’ve got a shot,” Overcash said.
Willmar went through league play going 4-6. The Rails had their good moments and some bad ones, perhaps best summed up by their games with Raymond. They beat the Rockets 3-2 on July 12 for a regular-season highlight. They also lost to Raymond, 15-0 on June 28 in Willmar, a definite low point.
Overcash sees a good opportunity for the Rails to advance to the region.
“As long as we put nine innings together, I think we can beat anybody,” he said. “All of our guys, from top to bottom, all good ballplayers.”
Christian Lessman and Jayden Dierenfeld have emerged as Willmar’s top two pitchers. Lessman struck out 19 in a 4-0 win over Granite Falls and would be considered the Rails’ ace. He’s a 2020 New London-Spicer graduate who is headed to St. Cloud Technical & Community College to continue his baseball career.
The Rails’ other top starter is Dierenfeld. He’s a 2019 Willmar graduate who just wrapped up the abbreviated college baseball season at the University of Sioux Falls, an NCAA Division II school in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Dierenfeld made one appearance for the Cougars before the season was canceled because of the pandemic.
Overcash said that Steffer has been a key player this summer. He’s from Howard Lake and played for Montrose/Waverly before moving to Willmar, where he teaches in the school district.
Overcash has played him at second, short and third and said that Steffers has taken charge in the dugout when the Rails have needed a boost.
“He’s definitely taken a leadership role,” Overcash said.
The Rails hope that it helps prolong what has been a short season. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Willmar didn’t start playing until June 13, losing 11-8 to the Milroy Yankees in an exhibition game in Aurora, S.D. The Rails went out of state because play wasn’t yet approved in Minnesota because of COVID-19 guidelines.
The schedule has been busy since. Wilmar is 5-7 with the possibility of up to five games this weekend.
“We’ll see what happens,” Overcash said.
New Ulm backlash
Mike Nagel, who is manager of the Bird Island Bullfrogs, also is a member of the Minnesota Baseball Association’s Board of Directors. He’s one of seven currently on the board, serving as secretary.
He said he was disappointed when he heard the news last Friday night that the New Ulm City Council had voted to opt out of being host to the state tournament.
“I’m a little frustrated with the whole situation,” he said, noting that the board had given New Ulm’s baseball board assurances about being host to the tournament during a pandemic.
“New Ulm’s baseball board said nothing positive about trying to keep the tournament,” Nagel said. “You have to take a leadership role.”
Nagel said he doubted New Ulm would be able to host a state tournament in the near future. The 2021 (Waconia and Chaska) and ‘22 (Dundas and Faribault) tournaments already have been awarded.
The 2023 tournament will be the MBA’s 100th.
When Rochester was scheduled to host in 2006, the MBA pulled out when the Rochester’s city officials did not grant a temporary liquor license to sell beer at one of the two sites. Rochester has not been a host since.
The tournament has been a boon to host cities over the years, filling the coffers of local baseball organizations and booster clubs over the three weekends. Losing a state tournament makes it that much harder for those organizations to raise money for their baseball programs.
A Corn Belt League pitcher to watch is definitely Bird Island right-hander Logan Nissen. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder touches 93 mph on the radar gun, according to Nagel, the Bullfrogs’ manager.
He was a senior this spring at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato. The former BOLD High School star has been granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA because this season was mostly canceled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nagel said Nissen will pitch next spring for Bethany Lutheran, an NCAA Division III school, after pitching 5-1/3 innings this past spring. He has been one of the Vikings’ workhorses on the mound the past two seasons, tossing 45 innings in 2019 and 47-⅔ in ‘18 after throwing the 10-⅔ as a freshman.
“He’s had scouts looking at him,” Nagel said.