The Monticello Legion baseball players headed down to the District 10 tournament this past weekend intent on proving they belonged among some of the best baseball programs in the state.
By the end of the first night, they were demoralized. After night two, they were rejuvenated. Night three put them in the mix. And by the end of the fourth and final night, Monticello had accomplished their goal and then some, showing they belonged by finishing third in the district and qualifying for the Legion State Tournament.
They definitely didn’t do it the easy way. They fell behind in the tournament, dropping the first game to Edina – the eventual tournament champions – 10-1. Then, in the final and deciding game of the tournament, they again found themselves behind, and in need of a comeback.
Both times – once over the course of the entire weekend, and once over the course of just three innings – Monticello fought back. And now, they will be rewarded with the program’s first trip to the state tournament in 13 years.
Edina romps in opener
In the opening round, Monticello was forced to doubt their assertion of belonging with the best Legion teams in the state. Edina got to Monticello’s ace Jake Frederick for two runs in the first, and methodically piled up on the runs on Monticello, scoring at least two runs in four different innings on their way to a 10-1 win. Monticello was stifled at the plate, picking up only five hits, lead by Tyler Streich who recorded the only RBI with a second-inning double.
“They had a college pitcher, and they didn’t make any mistakes,” said Coach Cole Deibele. “They’re a good team.”
Still, Monticello’s confidence was at least a bit shaken. Deibele said that even he was a bit nervous that the depth of some of the big city schools might be able to overwhelm his team.
Monticello gets on track
However, it didn’t take long for Monticello to pick themselves back up. Already facing elimination, Monticello came back on Friday and played one of their best games of the weekend, beating a tough St. Louis Park team 5-4.
“It was big to give the guys a little boost of confidence that we can play with these city schools,” said Deibele.
Unlike game one, Monticello scored first against St. Louis Park, getting two runs in both the second and third inning to jump out to a 4-0 lead. After the lead had been cut to 4-2, Monticello added one run in the fifth and that would be all Spencer Host needed on the mound.
Host went seven innings, allowing only four runs, despite allowing 16 base runners. He got himself out of numerous jams, aided by his seven strikeouts on the afternoon. As Host wore down through the seventh, Monticello brought hard-throwing reliever Jakob Kounkel on to close the door, and he did just that. Kounkel threw two innings of hitless ball to preserve the 5-4 lead and keep Monticello moving through the consolation bracket.
Kounkel was also one of the stars at the plate, picking up three hits and scoring three runs. Matt Bonk joined him in the three-hit club, while Streich added another double and three big RBIs.
In game three, Monticello squared off against Princeton, a team they had seen (but not played) at a school ball tournament, and felt confident against.
“We knew it was a team we could beat,” said Deibele.
That assertion looked shaky early. Monticello again scored first, with two in the top of the first. But this time, Princeton had an answer, they returned with five in the bottom of the first.
Still, Monticello remained confident. By the end of three, it was 6-6. Tyler Streich then came on to relieve Bonk on the mound, and Princeton’s offense slowed down. Monticello’s did now. It was 12-8 by the end of five, and by the time Monticello added three runs in the ninth, it was a 16-8 final in favor of the local team.
On the rare occasion that Monticello didn’t get a quality start on the mound, their bats made up for it by putting up overwhelming numbers. Monticello recorded 19 hits, including eight doubles and a home run. Again, Kounkel was the leader. His three hits all went for extra bases – two doubles and a home run – and resulted in six RBIs. It wasn’t a one-man show though. All nine Monticello hitters recorded at least one hit, and seven of them had two or more hits. Streich and Sam Taufen both had three hits, while the top three hitters in the order, Hayden Laimer, Taufen, and Michael Fisette, scored three runs apiece.
Suddenly (or maybe not so suddenly, after having to grind through two elimination games), Monticello was playing on the final day of the tournament.
But after facing a team they knew they could beat, they were now matched up against a Delano team that had already beat them twice this year.
Just over a week prior, Delano had beat Monticello 9-4 to earn the league’s top seed for the district playoffs. After that tournament, Deibele called them definitely the best team in the league, and said it would take a near-perfect effort from Monticello to beat them.
They got something close.
With their ace back on the mound, Monticello showed confidence in the field and at the plate. Delano got to Frederick for one in the first, but by the time they got their second run in the fourth, Monticello had already rallied for a 6-2 lead. Frederick was consistently brilliant on the mound, allowing just three hits while striking out eight batters. Monticello was almost as good at the plate. Eleven base hits and 18 base runners resulted in 11 runs as Monticello walked away with an 11-2 victory over Delano.
Deibele said that Delano’s pitching staff was worn down from tournament play, and Monticello was able to take advantage of their pitchers’ inexperience by laying down bunts and stealing bases, keeping Delano off-balance for most of the game. In contrast, Monticello was aided greatly by being able to bring their ace back just three days after he threw seven innings in the tournament opener.
“Not many teams have the luxury of having a guy like Frederick who bounces back so quick,” said Deibele.
But as great as Frederick was, the game might have looked differently without some important help from his defense.
In the fourth inning Delano had already scored one and had the bases loaded with two outs when their hitter ripped a line drive down the third base line. Somehow, it was turned into an out.
“[Third basemen] Jake Schmitz made one of the most acrobatic diving catches I’ve ever seen,” said Deibele. “Play of the game.”
From there, Frederick cruised. Luke Hanson, in relief, picked up where Frederick left off, throwing two innings of hitless ball to secure the 9-run win.
When that game ended a little before 6 p.m., Monticello found out they were scheduled for a third-place game in three hours. Win and they go to state, lose and their hard work to get through the consolation bracket goes virtually unrewarded.
State tourney or bust
“9 o’clock, under the lights to go to state,” said Deibele. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Monticello’s opponent was Hopkins, a team that had hammered them 12-0 in the district tournament just one year ago. This year, both teams were in for much more of a fight.
It was clear early that both teams were worn down from four straight days of baseball in the sun and heat. Neither team was sharp; neither pitching staff was pounding the strike zone.
It was evident that this would be a battle of attrition.
Both teams grinded through a scoreless first two innings, like two boxers feeling each other out in the early rounds of a fight.
In the third, things got messy. Monticello got just one hit, yet managed to push four runs across the plate. They were aided by numerous hit batsmen and solid base running.
In the bottom, Monticello starting pitcher Jakob Kounkel gave two back. In the bottom of the fourth, Monticello gave up another three runs, and the lead.
Kounkel, a hard-throwing contrast to the backwards-pitching Frederick, was struggling to pinpoint his control, and Hopkins took advantage.
By the time Kounkel exited in the sixth inning he had struck out eight batters and only allowed three hits. But he’d walked seven guys and Hopkins had taken advantage by scoring seven runs (two of which scored after Kounkel left the game, but were attributed to him). Monticello had yet to get back on the board since the third, and after Spencer Host got Monticello in the dugout following the sixth inning, the visitors were down 7-4 with a tired Host on the mound.
Again, Monticello had to grind.
“Every inning, we just kept coming in and saying, ‘we’ve got six outs left,” said Deibele. “I specifically remember saying that before the eighth inning.”
The message was that the game wasn’t over. Monticello had time left. But the time was now.
They responded accordingly.
With one out in the eighth, the lineup turned over. Leadoff hitter Laimer ripped a single. Taufen did the same. Fisette walked, and suddenly there was excitement and energy rippling through the park after 11 p.m. on a Sunday.
When Kounkel drew a walk, it pushed Laimer across the plate, bringing Monticello within two. Schmitz, following Kounkel, picked a perfect time for his first hit of the game, bringing in Taufen to bring the visitors within one. With still just one out, Zach Johnson became the sixth straight batter to reach base, as his RBI single tied the game. On Johnson’s hit, the winning run was held up at third base. It wouldn’t matter. The next batter, Streich, became the sixth Monticello player to be hit by a pitch in the game, and the most valuable. Kounkel walked home to give Monticello their first lead since the fifth inning.
Monticello still had just one out when they took the lead, but were unable to give themselves any insurance runs. While it had to be a bit concerning, they had more reasons to be confident than not.
“The way Spencer was pitching, I think everyone was pretty confident,” said Deibele.
The confidence was rewarded. Host allowed just one base runner the rest of the way, as he helped guide Monticello to the state tournament.
“He’s been extremely impressive,” said Deibele. “He said he had an inning or two in him [when he came in for the sixth]. Four innings later, Hopkins was walking away shaking their heads. He completely shut them down.”
Fittingly, Host finished the game by eliciting a strikeout, his fourth in less than four innings. In the small picture, it sent the Monticello players excitedly on the field to congratulate Host and others. In the big picture, it sent Monticello to the Legion tournament for the first time in some time (those associated with the program aren’t sure of when the team last qualified.
“It was a pretty cool moment,” said Deibele.
Now, Monticello is poised for even more coolness. They will head to the state tournament riding two hot pitchers, and a lineup full of guys who are finding their way on base, one way or another.
Plus, with their backs against the wall, they navigated through possibly the toughest district in the state to truly earn their state tournament berth. They have the pieces, and the know-how, to win big baseball games.
Deibele hopes they don’t settle for proving they can do it at the district level.
“I’m hoping the guys aren’t satisfied with just going to state,” he said. “I hope they take this as a challenge.”
If the challenge is putting Monticello baseball back on the map, this group is off to a great start. This weekend they will get a chance to finish the job.