State bound: VFW team rolls through District 6 and into program’s second-ever state tournament

Tommy Blackstone delivers a pitch toward home plate during Monti's 12-1 win against Sauk Rapids Monday. The Monti VFW team outscored opponents 27-2 over four games en route to a District 6 Tournament championship and state berth. (Times staff photos by Clay Sawatzke)
Tommy Blackstone delivers a pitch toward home plate during Monti’s 12-1 win against Sauk Rapids Monday. The Monti VFW team outscored opponents 27-2 over four games en route to a District 6 Tournament championship and state berth. (Times staff photos by Clay Sawatzke)

The Monticello VFW team is headed to the state tournament. And they’ve hardly broken a sweat.

Monti rolled past Foley by a 6-0 score Tuesday evening to become just the second VFW state tournament team in Monticello history. Prior to Tuesday’s championship game, Monti had routed Sauk Rapids 12-1 in six innings Monday to move to 3-0 in the double elimination league tournament and into the championship round. Last Friday, Monticello topped Litchfield and Cold Spring for their first two tournament victories.

Tuesday night’s victory fell right in line with nearly every other performance Monti has put forth recently. Monti struck first, getting three runs in the second inning. From there, the pitching and defense took control. And as the game wore on, and the opponent wore down, Monti added a few extra insurance runs.

For the tournament, Monti outscored its opponents by a 26-2 margin. The pitching staff allowed zero earned runs in 27 innings. By the time Tuesday night came around, there was zero doubt about who the best team, and most deserving champion in the field, was.

Ethan Bosacker tackles pitcher Alex Otto and catcher Dom Dehmer following Monti's championship clinching 6-0 win over Foley on Tuesday.
Ethan Bosacker tackles pitcher Alex Otto and catcher Dom Dehmer following Monti’s championship clinching 6-0 win over Foley on Tuesday.

Coach Joe Rosh said he could see it in opponents’ body language over the course of the weekend.
“They just know we’re the best team here,” said Rosh, still dripping from his Gatorade bath. “And we know we’re the best team here.”

For their reward, they get to be the first Monticello team since 1995 to head to the VFW state tournament, which will take place in Willmar next weekend. And Rosh is well aware how much of an honor, and achievement, this tournament is.

“This one is special,” he said. “VFW Baseball is a very authentic state tournament. There’s not Class A, Class B, Class C, there’s no let’s have a qualifier on the weekend. What we did, it’s very authentic. We’re the best team, big school, small school, in our area.”

The players were pretty excited, if not surprised, by the tournament championship.

“As we grew up we were used to playing in high pressure situations like this, so I knew we were going to pull through,” said Carson Sawatzke, who delivered the key hit of the game Tuesday evening, a two-run triple to get Monti on the board in the second inning.

The pitching star of Tuesday’s game was Alex Otto. The incoming junior tossed a complete game shutout, allowing just three hits while striking out nine batters. Otto said it was a treat just to get to pitch in a game with a state berth at stake.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “There’s a lot on the line, but it makes it so much more fun.”

Otto’s performance continued an otherworldly VFW season for him. He has now thrown 27.1 innings on the mound for VFW, and allowed exactly zero earned runs.

But it wasn’t just pitching keeping opponents at bay during the weekend. Monti’s defense was sharp throughout, and particularly so on Tuesday.

“The defense is awesome,” said Otto, adding that he feels like it’s the strongest outfield he’s ever played with.

And they do it with a lot of moving pieces. Monti tends to have several people in different positions each game, depending on who is pitching.

“We have a lot of guys that can play multiple positions,” said Rosh. “We’re very smooth and very versatile.”

With proven pitching and sharp defense, when they hit, and they sure did this weekend, look out.

“We’ve grown up doing this,” said Sawatzke, alluding to the state championships this group racked up as youth. “When we pitch as well as we do, field as well as we do, and hit as well as we do, we’re tough to stop.”

Sawatzke’s triple Tuesday came after Jace Pribyl and Thomas Van Culin had both ripped second-inning hits on Tuesday. Sawatzke stepped up with two outs, and two on, and the chance give Monti an early lead – something with which they’ve proven very dangerous.

He delivered, taking an outside fastball and going the other way over the right fielder’s head for a stand-up triple and a 2-0 lead. Jason Axelberg followed Sawatzke with a hard single to the outfield to make it 3-0, and the parade to the state tournament was on.

Thomas Van Culin slides in ahead of the tag during Monti's game with Sauk Rapids Monday.
Thomas Van Culin slides in ahead of the tag during Monti’s game with Sauk Rapids Monday.

Foley never seriously threatened after the second inning and Monti added three insurance runs in the fifth, keyed by a two-run Ethan Bosacker double, to salt away another hard-earned but easy looking victory, their 11th in a row.

Monday, Monti dismantled Sauk Rapids to advance to the championship contest. Sauk Rapids had entered the game coming off convincing wins against the second and third seeds in the tournament, and Rosh wanted to make sure his guys didn’t overlook the sixth seed.

“We said ‘hey, they’re here for a reason, they beat a good Buffalo team, we got to take it to them right away,’” said Rosh. And the boys listened.

Monti put up a six spot in the third inning, taking command of the winners bracket showdown.
The inning started with a Tommy Blackstone triple. Dom Dehmer followed Blackstone with an RBI single, plating the first run of the game. With one out, Pribyl lined a double to center field, bringing Dehmer in to score. After Otto was hit by a pitch, Monti put the wheels in motion on the base paths. A couple of passed balls later, Monti had scored two more and doubled the lead. The aggressive baserunning fit a profile Monti has kept all season long.

“Once we start hitting the ball, our athleticism on the base paths puts a lot of pressure on guys,” said Rosh. “So we just keep running and taking chances. And once in a while you get thrown out, but it’s just fun to get everyone going and into the game like that.”

Van Culin kept things going for Monti, hitting a double to right field to bring in Bosacker. Then with two outs, Van Culin stole third, and when the third basemen muffed the catch, Van Culin came flying home for the sixth and final run of the inning.

Monti added one more in the fifth before posting a five-spot in the sixth inning. That would be way more than Blackstone needed on the mound.

The incoming junior threw all six innings in the contest, allowing just one unearned run on two hits and two walks while striking out four batters. It continues what has been a masterful season on the mound for Blackstone, a guy considered to be Monti’s No. 3 starter. He has started eight contests for the VFW team, allowing a total of six runs, just two of which were earned. He has thrown 41 total innings, giving him an ERA (.341) so small you may have to squint to see it.

Blackstone entered the summer more heralded as a hitter and a fielder than a pitcher, but he said a couple of small changes to his pitching approach during his fourth outing of the year have helped make him more effective on the mound.

“It all started back in the St. Cloud tournament when we played Mahtomedi,” said Blackstone, who threw a five-inning no-hitter in that contest. “I just tried to keep the ball low and let them get themselves out. I’ve kept on pitching like that and as we’ve played better teams I’ve been able to keep getting good results.”

Blackstone hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last 32 innings. And that falls right in line with what the rest of the team is doing. Monti has a team ERA of 1.367. Otto holds the ERA of 0.00, while Bosacker’s is .467, and Isaac Fransden’s sits at 1.842 in 38 innings pitched.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Rosh. “I like to think our (number) one (pitcher) is better than everyone else’s one, our two is better than everyone else’s two, and our three is better than everyone else’s three.”
That, combined with a recent surge at the plate, has made Monti seem invincible at times lately.
Jace Pribyl, who went 3 for 3 with three doubles in Monday night’s contest, is one of the guys that has been tearing the cover off the ball recently.

Pribyl said he made an adjustment to his batting stance about a month ago, and it has paid major dividends.

“The last month I’ve been feeling pretty good,” said Pribyl, admitting that the baseball currently looks more like a beach ball at the plate. “It’s pretty nice just being able to go up there and see the ball well and help the team out.”

Pribyl currently sports a .466 batting average, which is second on the team, just a tick behind Blackstone (.475).

“He’s really hitting the ball,” said Rosh. “He’s our four hitter for a reason.”
Van Culin has also stayed hot for Monti, picking up three hits Monday night, along with four RBIs, to boost his average to .415.

The tournament started last Friday, and Monti kicked things off with the its closest game of the last few weeks, edging past Litchfield 2-1.

Monti led 1-0 until the top of the fifth when an error by Blackstone allowed the tying run to come in to score.

Blackstone didn’t have to wait long to avenge his mistake.

The second-batter up in the bottom of the inning, Blackstone hit what should have been a single to left field. But when the outfielder played it nonchalantly, Blackstone turned on the jets and scooted into second ahead of the throw for a double. With Dehmer at the plate next, Blackstone read a ball in the dirt and took off for third, arriving safely despite the catcher having blocked the ball perfectly. Then when Dehmer grounded the ball to the second basemen, Blackstone took off once more, beating the throw home for what would be the game-winning run.

“Something like that happens, I get an error or something bad happens, I usually try to bounce back and try to make something happen,” said Blackstone on Monday, when discussing the sequence.
Rosh said it was a special sequence to see.

Ethan Bosacker tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just one hit and striking out 13 batters in Monti's second-round win against No. 4 Cold Spring last Friday.
Ethan Bosacker tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just one hit and striking out 13 batters in Monti’s second-round win against No. 4 Cold Spring last Friday.

“He just literally got the run back, and that’s what leaders do,” said Rosh. “He just singlehandedly produced a run.”

In the second round game, Monti cruised past Cold Spring 4-0 thanks to a dominant performance by the battery of Bosacker and Dehmer.

Bosacker threw all seven innings, allowing just one infield hit while striking out 13 batters.

“He pitched the best game you’ll see at the VFW level,” said Rosh.

And when he needed it, he got a little help from his catcher. Dehmer, a sophomore to be, threw out two would-be base stealers in the contest.

Rosh said Dehmer has been tremendous all year at blocking balls in the dirt, but that his ability to throw out base runners has really improved as the season has gone along.

“He’s got a little more confidence there now,” said Rosh. “He’s a tremendous asset.”

The way they’re playing right now, Monti has a team full of tremendous assets. Rosh believes other teams see it that way too.

“I know that other teams are like ‘what do we have to do to beat Monticello?’” Rosh said.

That’s now that’s a question for the 11 other state tournament teams to address.

Monticello is one of six teams that receive a first-round bye in the 10-team tournament. Monti will play its first state tournament game at 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10 in Willmar vs. the winner of Centennial and Winona.

A state preview can be found in the upcoming Aug. 10 Monticello Times.

Contact Clay Sawatzke at clay.sawatzke@ecm-inc.com