Tom Elliott: Cards are a good, but not clear-cut, bet for state
Willmar, Paynesville, KMS among area baseball teams with realistic state berths on the table
In an example of what a tough spring it has been weather-wise, we are less than three weeks away from the high school baseball playoffs.
Most teams haven't quite played half their scheduled games. So, buckle up. The next couple of weeks are going to be hectic for everyone on the prep sports scene.
What can be discerned at this point: Willmar, Paynesville and Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg all are headed in the right direction to state berths. All three are among the favorites in their respective sections.
None of them, however, are clear-cut favorites.
Willmar is in a six-team Section 8AAA where all six teams could make a case for winning it. The third-ranked Cardinals are 6-3 overall and coming off a huge victory over one of the pre-season favorites, Rocori. They beat the No. 7 Spartans 10-1 Thursday.
It wrapped up a week in which Willmar went 3-1 against some noteworthy competition, sweeping Marshall, falling to Sartell, a Class AAAA school, and then beating Rocori.
"It was a tough four-week stretch," Willmar head coach Tom DeBoer said. "I talked to my assistants about how if we walked out of this week 3-1, I'd be pretty happy."
Willmar has another four-game week ahead of it. But, of course, so do most teams.
"Everybody's going through it," DeBoer said. "You never know what pitcher you're going to see when you play. It could be their No. 1 or their No. 3 or 4.
"This week, our pitchers did such a good job."
One specifically was extra special: Ian Koosman. The senior right-hander, who is also an excellent shortstop, got wins over Marshall and Rocori. In 11 innings, he struck out 23 with one walk. DeBoer said he threw about 70 pitches Monday and another 80 or so Thursday, which is considered a heavy load with strict pitch-count limits.
He's one reason that Willmar will have a chance in Section 8AAA. Detroit Lakes remains undefeated. Rocori, Alexandria, Little Falls and Sauk Rapids all have strong baseball resumes with recent state tournament berths.
The coaches decided to go with a playoff format that includes no first-round byes. The top seed will play the sixth seed, No. 2 plays No. 5 and No. 3 plays No. 4. Second-round games will feature first-round winners against first-round losers.
DeBoer likes the format. He thinks first-round byes would be too big of an advantage. He's also pleased that his squad beat Rocori.
"It definitely helps in our section," he said. "Our section is going to be us. No matter where you fall, nobody gets a first-round bye or an easy game."
Willmar plays Monday at Princeton, Fergus Falls at home on Tuesday and then a home doubleheader Thursday against Alexandria. The Alexandria games will be big.
Here's a look at some other area sections:
This is one of the best Class AA sections in the state this year. At the top of it are Fairmont (9-0), Paynesville (7-0), Minnewaska (5-0), Windom (4-1), Redwood Valley (7-2), Luverne (8-4) and Morris/Chokio-Alberta (4-2).
Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City (5-5), Montevideo (2-2) and New London-Spicer (4-5) all are good enough to make some noise.
Fairmont is ranked second in the state. Paynesville is No. 10 and Minnewaska is certainly worthy of top-10 consideration.
Paynesville is coming off a doubleheader sweep of Maple Lake on Thursday in St. Cloud in which the Bulldogs threw back-to-back no-hitters.
Whoever survives this section will be very tough at state.
Watertown-Mayer (8-0), Providence Academy (7-1) and Southwest Christian are the teams to beat. Litchfield (3-6) is jockeying for a good seed.
It looks like New Ulm Cathedral (10-1) is the best team so far, though Madelia (6-2), Springfield (8-3), Sleepy Eye (6-3) and Sleepy Eye St. Mary's (6-3) are off to good starts.
BOLD (2-5) is trying to work its way up the seedings ladder.
This section looks wide open. Murray County Central (5-0) is off to a good start. Then, there are a bunch of teams that intrigue, including MACCRAY (5-1), Red Rock Central/Westbrook-Walnut Grove (6-2), Dawson-Boyd (3-1) and Lac qui Parle Valley (4-2).
Central Minnesota Christian, Yellow Medicine East and Renville County West are teams to watch.
Upsala/Swanville Area (9-0), KMS (6-0) and Ashby (5-0) are all still unbeaten. Watch out for Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (5-4) which plays a tough Central Minnesota Conference schedule. KMS certainly has a good shot to take the section title.