Prep Baseball: Cards hope for trifecta at state tourney
Top-seeded Willmar plays defending state champ St. Thomas Academy in the quarterfinals
WILLMAR — The Willmar Cardinals baseball team arrived one-by-one into the parking lot outside of Bill Taunton on Sunday for a 7 p.m. practice with smiles on their faces but business on their minds.
Prior to the start of the 2021 season, the Cardinals had three goals: Becoming conference champs, section champs and state champs. Now, with a 22-2 record, the top-seeded Cardinals have achieved two of the three milestones and look to complete the trifecta in the Class AAA state tournament starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Mini Met Field in Jordan against St Thomas Academy.
“We’re feeling pretty good, pretty confident,” Cardinals coach Tom DeBoer said. “We’ve accomplished two big goals this year, winning the conference and then making it through our section. Obviously the next big goal is to go to the state tournament and having a good experience.
“We’re going to try to compete the best we can and hopefully we will be playing (in the state championship) on Friday.”
DeBoer gave the team a two-day rest after the Cardinals defeated Benilde-St. Margaret 9-1 in the Section 6AAA championship on Thursday. On Sunday afternoon, preparations began for the Cardinals’ run in the state tournament. Their first opponent is St. Thomas Academy (17-9), the 2019 state AAA champion.
“We feel good about our matchup,” DeBoer said in regards to playing the Cadets in the quarterfinals. “They’re obviously going to be a great team with a lot of experience. They have a lot of pedigree.
“But when you make it to the state tournament you expect to play good teams and you know what you’re up against.”
The Cardinals will be looking to their five seniors — Andrew Baumgart, Jett Salonek, Dylan Arndorfer, Hunter Magnuson and Chase Dirksen — in terms of leadership, in particular against the Cadets.
“I think if you look at our five seniors, Andrew, Hunter, Jett, Dylan, and Chase, we’re going to look to those guys to contribute and make some big plays for us,” DeBoer said. “We just want them to go out there and continue to do the stuff that they have been doing.
“(They’re) working hard and setting the tone for our team in terms of just energy and effort and they’re going to bring it.”
Baumgart, the team’s ace and a left-hander, looks to continue his successful season. Baumgart, a North Dakota State University recruit, has 79 strikeouts and 12 walks in 63⅔ innings.
At the plate, Baumgart has a .333 batting average. He’s tied with Salonek for second in RBIs with 21, second in home runs with two, and is third in runs scored with 25.
Baumgart comes into the state tournament after a strong outing against BSM. He threw all seven innings for the Cardinals against the Red Knights, tallying six strikeouts and one walk. At the plate, Baumgart notched a three-run homer in the bottom of the first. That led to a 6-0 lead at the end of the first inning and the 9-1 victory for the section championship.
For Baumgart, the opportunity to finish his high-school career at state with the chance of becoming state champion is monumental, particularly after losing the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Coming off of everything that has happened within the past 15 months and not playing at all with this group of guys, it’s been unforgettable to say the least,” he said. “We just got to keep it going. I really don’t know what else to say other than that.
“It’s been a lot of fun but we just got to stay grounded. Even though we’re going in as the one seed we’ve got to not let the big situation get into our heads.
“We have to stay grounded, make sure the moment doesn’t get to us, take deep breaths, take it all in and have fun.”
DeBoer and Baumgart agreed that scoring early could be key.
In the postseason, the Cardinals have scored 12 of 48 runs in the first inning and 25 of those have come within the first three innings.
“Our first inning has been, throughout the postseason, our best inning,” DeBoer said. “Setting the tone at the beginning of the game like that, it really helps our guys settle in and feel comfortable.”
Baumgart added to DeBoer’s statement by saying what the first-inning momentum feels like in terms of the player’s mindset and taking the field following the inning.
“Scoring in the first inning has been a big thing for us because it helps our defense play better when we’re up and have a comfortable lead,” he said. “We don’t play as tight. We play a little bit more loosely and relax and I think that will really be a big thing for us.”
Salonek, an outfielder and right-handed pitcher, has been a key contributor. Salonek leads the Cardinals with 34 hits, 36 runs and three home runs. He’s hitting a team-best .447 along with a .645 slugging percentage.
While the top-seeded Cardinals may be feeling some pressure given the circumstances, Salonek believes the team is prepared for it.
“I just think it’s all about grinding and keep going,” Salonek said. “I want everyone to give it their all. We all care about the game and we’ve been getting really good results all year. We’ve just got to keep going and not get satisfied with just one big game.
“Obviously, there’s a little pressure when you’re going into a situation like this. But we just want to go out and play. ... I think we believe in ourselves and we’re confident. I think we can do what we’ve been doing and just keep going.”
DeBoer believes that if Willmar maintains its style of play, which has led to a nine-game winning streak, the Cardinals could be in strong shape to play under the lights of Target Field.
“Our lineup one-through-nine can hurt anybody at any time,” he said. “It’s nice having that because it takes the pressure off everybody. We know that everybody on our team can contribute and we don’t just solely rely on one person to carry us.”
Aside from winning it all, the Cardinals, hold one goal close to their heart: Not allowing the state tournament to pass by without enjoying it.
“I would tell (the underclassmen) to take every second in and don’t forget it,” Baumgart said. “This is where you want to be next year. It’s a pretty special moment, but it shouldn’t be that kind of once-in-a-lifetime thing.
“This is what you guys should strive to be at every year.”
DeBoer hopes to see his players have a strong urge to be competitive, but also be happy to continue playing.
“The big goal is to hold the trophy up on Friday. But I just want our guys to go out there and compete and know that they gave their best and that they worked as hard as they could,” he said. “Regardless of the outcome, if we really play hard and give our best, we’re going to be able to walk off the field knowing that we did.”
This is the Cardinals’ fourth time at state, with the most recent being in 2018, 31 years after the Cardinals won the Class AA (largest school) state championship in 1987.
Class AAA tournament
(at the Mini Met, Jordan)
No. 1 Willmar (22-2) vs. St. Thomas Academy, 10 a.m.
No. 4 Marshall (17-6) vs. No. 5 Grand Rapids (17-7), 12:30 p.m.
No. 2 Sartell (21-3) vs. Albert Lea (12-11), 3 p.m.
No. 3 Mahtomedi (17-5) vs. Sauk Rapids (10-12), 5:30 p.m.
(at the Mini Met, Jordan)
Willmar/STA winner vs. Marshall/GR winner, noon
Sartell/AL winner vs. Mahtomedi/SR winner, 2:30 p.m.
Semifinal losers, 5 p.m.
(at Target Field, Minneapolis)
Semifinal winners, 4 p.m.
NOTE: There will be no cash purchases onsite. All tickets can be purchased online at www.mshsl.org/state-tournament-tickets.