Last summer, the Monti VFW team came one game away from ending a six-year championship drought at their annual home tournament.
This summer they wouldn’t be denied.
With largely the same group of kids back for year two in the VFW Post 8731 program, Monti once again worked its way to the championship game of the Monticello Tournament this past weekend. This time around, thanks to a brilliant pitching performance from Alex Otto, they took care of business.
Monti squeezed past Anoka 1-0 in the Saturday night finale, giving the VFW program their first home tournament win since the summer of 2010.
“It’s kind of been a goal since last year,” said Tommy Blackstone, who helped pace the offense this weekend. “We expected to win that tournament.”
Blackstone is one of three VFW players that splits time between the Legion team and the younger VFW team. He, Ethan Bosacker, and Alex Otto play full time with the legion squad then join the VFW when it works out. That includes tournaments, meaning the local squad had the full arsenal of firepower for this weekend’s eight-team tournament. It was important to them that they take advantage.
“We were all in, in that regard,” said Coach Joe Rosh. “They knew what they had to do.”
In the opening game of the tournament, Monti cruised to an 11-1 victory in four innings over St. Cloud Apollo.
Monti got out of a minor jam in the first inning, thanks to a line drive double play, then proceeded to post three runs in bottom of the inning to set the tone. Monti would add three more in both the second and the third before scoring twice in the fourth to create the 10-run advantage.
Tommy Blackstone threw a complete game on the mound, scattering five hits and three walks while striking out four batters. He allowed just one unearned run.
Offensively, Monti had just about everyone clicking.
“It was kind of a hit parade,” said Rosh.
Monti collected 12 hits in just 20 at bats in the game, led by two each for Blackstone, Dom Dehmer, and
Alex Otto. Blackstone had two doubles, while Otto and Dehmer each added a triple. Jace Pribyl led Monti with three RBIs in the ballgame.
Shortly after the game one win, Monti was back on the field to take on Buffalo in the semifinal round.
Rosh said Buffalo fields a strong lineup, with several varsity players, and he anticipated it would be a good game. He wasn’t let down.
Monti got the first two runs of the game and was able to hang on late, securing a 2-1 victory over their next-door rivals.
The Magic broke the ice in the third inning of the evening game. Tommy Blackstone struck a one-out single to left field to get things started. With two outs, Blackstone darted for second base, stealing the bag safely to gain scoring position. The extra base would prove crucial, as Isaac Frandsen delivered a two-out single to left field that scored Blackstone and put Monti in front.
Blackstone’s all-around effort at the tournament continued what has been a dynamite start to the season for him. The incoming junior leads the team with a scintillating .632 batting average, picking up 12 hits in just 19 at bats. Five of those are extra-base hits, including two triples and a home run, giving Blackstone a slugging percentage of 1.105. He’s also tied for the team lead with four stolen bases on the season.
Blackstone said he’s been playing, and particularly hitting, with a ton of confidence as of late.
“I just feel like I’m tearing the cover off the ball,” said Blackstone, adding that his tear goes back to a game against Sauk Rapids last week. “Ever since then, I just feel bullet proof up there. Every time I get up there, I feel like I’m going to hit a line drive.”
His coach sees the same thing.
“He’s just kind of a man amongst boys,” said Rosh. “Tommy is one of those guys that when he shows up at the VFW level, he stands out.”
He’s also had plenty of help.
Offensively, that came from Pribyl and Thomas Van Culin on Friday evening. In the bottom of the sixth, those two, plus Zach Skarie, teamed up to provide a valuable insurance run.
Once again, it started with one out when Pribyl lined a single to right field. Monti brought Skarie on to run the bases. The decision would pay off when Van Culin, an incoming sophomore, delivered a clutch double to left field that brought Skarie in all the way from first base to put Monti up 2-0.
In the top of the seventh inning, Buffalo loaded the bases with no outs but Bosacker buckled down to close out the win. The incoming junior, who also pitches at the Legion level, got an infield pop up, allowed a sacrifice fly to make it 2-1, then shut the door with a strikeout to put an exclamation mark on the semifinal win.
It completed an outstanding performance from Bosacker, as he went all seven innings and allowed eight hits while striking out seven batters. It continued what has been a strong spring and early part of summer for the pitcher, who slotted in as the No. 3 guy on the varsity this past season.
“We really developed a lot of confidence in him,” said Rosh. “We’ve been thoroughly impressed with his pitching.”
Monti totaled seven hits in the ballgame, with two each coming from Blackstone and Carson Sawatzke. Sawatzke is tied for the team lead with 12 hits through eight games, and is second in batting average at .522.
The Magic also played error free baseball Friday night.
“It was a really well-played game by both sides,” said Rosh. “A really fun game to be a part of.”
It also set the stage for a Saturday night showdown between Monti and Anoka.
Playing in front of a sizable crowd, the two teams would combine to deliver a tremendous baseball game.
“It was just a really good environment,” said Rosh, on Monday. “The best atmosphere you could probably have at the VFW level.”
With Otto on the mound for Monticello, the two teams traded goose eggs for the first three and a half frames. But in the fourth, Monti broke through.
The inning started, as so many run-scoring innings do, with a lead-off walk. Frandsen drew the base on balls, giving Monti a guy at first with no outs. Next up was Otto, who was asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt, and did so successfully.
“It’s rare to see him do that,” said Rosh. “But we knew it’d be a 1-0 or 2-0 game.”
Again, the decision would pay dividends. Pribyl was up next, and he delivered a single to right field.
With the outfielder playing in tight and just one out, Frandsen was forced to check in at third base. For the second night in a row, the stage was set for Van Culin.
Not trying to do to much, the incoming sophomore did exactly what he needed to do. Van Culin lifted a fly ball to center field that was plenty deep to score Frandsen and put Monti in front 1-0.
Rosh, who said Monti is used to scoring a lot of runs, was impressed with how easily the players adapted to a different way of winning over the weekend.
“They were able to switch over and say ‘OK, we’ll play small ball,’” he said.
The coach was particularly pleased with Van Culin (.455 BA), who along with Dehmer (.450 BA) and Jason Axelberg, have come up from the younger class to prove they can not just hang with but can help this talented older class.
“Very impressive,” said Rosh, of the game-winning at-bat. “In a lot of players, that type of situational hitting doesn’t develop until later.”
That run was the first, and only, allowed by Anoka all tournament. It would also be all that Otto and the Magic defense needed. The hard-throwing righty shut down the speedy Anoka squad all night, allowing just two hits and three walks while striking out 10 batters. He also did an effective job of limiting one of Anoka’s biggest strengths.
“Otto did an exceptional job of holding runners on,” said Rosh. “He took their aggressive baserunning out of play.”
Rosh said it’s those types of things, situational hitting, holding baserunners on, etc. that combine with a lot of talent to make this group of baseball players so special.
“There are a lot of baseball savvy guys,” said Rosh. “They’re really fun to coach. You can do a lot of different things with them.”
Following the tournament victory, Monti came back to the park Monday to pick up a 6-1 league win against Buffalo. That moved Monti to 4-1 in league play and 7-1 overall.
It’s a group that has had a lot of success together in the past, and is reunited again after being somewhat split up during the school ball season. They’re both having fun and reaping the rewards.
“We love it,” said Blackstone. “We’ve always been looking forward to this. We really like playing with the kids we’ve always played with.”
Rosh is hopeful that when it comes to good times, this is just the beginning.
“We have a really good chance of going really far,” said Rosh. “It’s really exciting in that regard.”
Monti is off until after the Fourth of July. After a game at Little Falls on July 6th, Monti will participate in the marquee St. Cloud Tournament, held July 7-9 at the MAC in St. Cloud.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]