Town ball: Rails get the OK to play

Willmar has its home-opener with Montrose-Waverly set for Sunday at Bill Taunton Stadium

042420.S.WCT.Spring Sports.jpg
A sign from the City of Willmar to stay off the field hangs outside Bill Taunton Stadium, the home of Willmar High School baseball along with the Willmar Stingers, Ridgewater Warriors, the Willmar Rails, and Willmar's Legion and VFW baseball teams. Shortly after Gov. Tim Walz's press conference closing schools for the remainder of the school year, the MSHSL announced April 23, 2020 that spring sports would be canceled, effective immediately. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — With an OK from the Willmar City Council, the Willmar Rails are set for their home-opener Sunday.

“I was a little nervous about it,” said Rails manager Dustin Overcash. “Things were dicey there for a while.”

Overcash was talking about Monday’s city council meeting, which approved amateur baseball’s social-distancing guidelines because of the coronavirus pandemic, allowing the Rails to play games on the city’s fields, which include Bill Taunton Stadium. The vote was 5-3.

Willmar is host to the Montrose-Waverly Stingers at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Taunton Stadium. The games come after the Rails’ Corn Belt League approved a 10-game schedule.

Willmar opened last weekend with road losses to the St. Nicholas Nicks (5-1) and the Milroy Yankees (11-8). Like many Minnesota Baseball Association teams, the Rails chose to ignore Gov. Tim Walz’s guidelines restricting games like baseball because of Covid-19.


The MBA, through its attorney, has recommended that town-ball teams get approval from their local municipalities to play following strict guidelines. For Willmar, that’ll mean things like hand sanitizer in both dugouts and in the stands, social-distancing guidelines in the stands and players refraining from unnecessary contact like handshakes and high-fives. Fans will sign a checklist about their health and will be asked to leave if they show any symptoms. Signs will be posted around the stadium about amateur baseball’s guidelines and restrictions.

“And we’ll be having announcements from the PA (public address announcer),” Overcash said.

Overcash is anxious to have his team play.

“I feel pretty good,” he said. “We’ve got guys who seem to really want to play.”

One of them is Drey Dirksen. The West Central Tribune’s Hengstler-Ranweiler 2019 Male Award winner, Dirksen just finished his shortened freshman season at Augustana University, an NCAA Division II power in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He’ll play for the Rails until Dirksen’s Northwoods League season starts. Dirksen is under contract with the Willmar Stingers, who hope to get the go-ahead to start playing soon, perhaps July 1.

Montrose-Waverly was added to the Rails’ schedule late through a team contact. Willmar’s new league schedule gave them a bye Sunday.

Overcash’s club was 7-14 last year. He isn’t ready to make any rash predictions about 2020.

“It’s hard to tell what we’re going to be like this year,” he said. “We have a lot of new faces.”


Three that are gone: Sam and Noah Vreeman have retired. Sam had a work-related injury and Noah moved out of state. Caleb Ditmarson, a talented hitter and right-handed pitcher headed to the University of Sioux Falls, has left the Rails and signed with the Raymond Rockets. He had three hits, including a home run, and pitched well in Raymond’s 3-2 win over Bird Island on Sunday.

“It’s disappointing, but what do you do?” Overcash said, calling Ditmarson’s move “a sore spot.”

They’ll move on and play ball.

Elite 8 at Elrosa

The Stearns County League garnered a great deal of media attention last week when it became one of the first in the state to begin play despite state restrictions in place by the governor’s office.

“I kind of wondered if we could play baseball,” said Elrosa manager A.J. Hadley, whose Saints are members of the Stearns County League. “I was actually pretty surprised by the governor’s orders.”

Elrosa got the OK to play June 11, enabling the Saints to play Friday with sports writer Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis StarTribune in attendance.

Elrosa then won its first league game 7-6 Sunday at Meire Grove. Hadley said the MBA got a call from the Minnesota attorney general’s office about the games played over the weekend. He’s not concerned about what might happen, including the possibility of being kicked out of the playoffs.

“We just want to play,” he said.


The Saints are now ready to host the Elite 8 Tournament Friday through Sunday at Matt Bauer Field.

Eight teams will play in a traditional bracket tournament with the championship set for 4 p.m. Sunday. All the games will be seven innings, except for one. New Munich and Elrosa play at 6:30 p.m. Friday in a game that also will count in the Stearns County League standings.

Hadley said the tournament field was shuffled because some teams haven’t been able to practice yet and decided to bow out. That opened the opportunity to sneak in a league game as well as a quarterfinal match-up in the Elite 8.

The other game scheduled Friday is the New London-Spicer Twins vs. the Cannon Falls Bears. That one follows the Elrosa-New Munich game.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, the Freeport Black Sox play the Fergus Falls Hurricanes followed by the Watertown Red Devils and Tri-City Shark, a Class A team from the Twin Cities, at noon Saturday.

Hadley said Morris and the Sartell Muskies, who are the defending tournament champions, decided not to play this weekend.

As for Elrosa, the Saints have one of their youngest teams in recent memory. Hadley, who turns 35 Sunday, and the Voigt brothers (Ethan, 34, and Aaron, 40) are the only players older than 30, Hadley said.

“We are in a youth movement,” Hadley said.


They’ll gain some experience this weekend.

Proud moment

The Raymond Rockets beat the visiting Bird Island Bullfrogs 3-2 Sunday at Lilleberg Field. Zach Nelson got the save by pitching a scoreless ninth inning, allowing one hit.

Nelson’s a 47-year-old right-hander. What made the moment special is that his son Eli Nelson played shortstop. Eli is 16 years old.

The Rockets are an interesting mix of veterans and youngsters. Lead-off hitter Mike Jeseritz is 41 years old and catcher Tyler Steen, whose two-run home run in the eighth was the game-winner, is 31 and in his 14th season with the Rockets.

Besides Eli Nelson, Raymond also used teenagers Isaac Call and Brady Kienitz on Sunday. Isaac’s younger brother Alex Call also is on the roster, but wasn’t in uniform. He’s a left-hander pitcher who will be a junior at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg. Alex Call has committed to the University of Arizona.

Tom Elliott has been the sports editor at the West Central Tribune since September 2019.
Contact him at or leave a message at 320-235-1150.
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