--by Brett Kruschke
Not unlike the wildly-popular NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, the first weekend of the Class B and C state tournaments are a positive overdose of seemingly non-stop action. It’s like sitting close-by for a fireworks finale and almost not knowing which direction to look.
Perhaps that’s a bit overstated for a game without a clock, but for those who’ve made it this far, a season of hopes and dreams boils down to a few hours on a nicely-manicured field and the ultimate desire to just keep playing. The “Final 64” also realize that almost 200 other B & C teams they competed with all year are either at home or in the stands.
This is the longest week of the amateur baseball season, as everyone is antsy for the games to begin. To help you make it through, we’ve assembled our Class C rankers for a look ahead to the tournament and what to watch for as the games play out. Of course no-one will be exactly right or likely even close to it, but that’s the beauty of it.
We asked each of our pollsters to divide the Class C bracket in half and to choose a dark horse, an upset, an underdog and a favorite from each, plus an overall champion. The format may have been too confounding to follow, as each prognosticator seemed to forge a bit of their own path. But as the saying goes, it’s good enough for government work.
Look for the Class B prognosticators article sometime Thursday. For both classes, we will also kick out some Twitter poll questions to see what the masses think.
JASON KUERSCHNER – Cologne
Top Half of the Class C Bracket
The Favorite: Hutchinson – Not only do they have the home-field advantage going, but they are HOT!! They won the Region 12C tourney as the 7th seed. The pieces are in place for a good run.
The Dark Horse: Winsted – I know it’s hard to imagine picking a team with 2015 tourney MVP Tony Kley as a dark horse, but they haven’t been ranked all year in the polls and they come in as the Region 7 No. 3 seed.
The Upset: This one was hard to pick but I am going to go with a second-round upset: Hanska over the Prior Lake Mudcats.
The Underdog: In their first-ever state tourney appearance, I’m taking the Milroy Irish.
Lower Half of Class C Bracket
In my opinion, this half is stacked with quality teams. I have penciled in these four to make it to the semis of this bracket: Waconia, Hampton, Nisswa and Sartell. Nisswa and Sartell have been in the top 10 poll all season and have earned it. Waconia faltered in the middle of the year but they also didn’t play as many games as some of the other teams in the top 10 poll.
Hampton was at least always on my radar to put in the rankings, but they played a tough schedule and I am not sure if they had their entire team playing all regular season. Regardless, it looks as though they are committed to the playoff run now, and the addition of drafted pitcher Keith Meyers can only help.
The Favorite: Waconia – After watching them dismantle teams and then also win the close ones, it appears they are ready to make another run to the championship game like they did in 2011. It won’t be easy getting through those other three teams mentioned above, but it should definitely be worth watching!
The Dark Horse: Here I am going with Hampton, only because they were not ranked during the season as compared to the other three listed above.
The Upset: I going with Brownton here. They are a solid No. 4 seed out of Region 7, they pitch well and play good defense, and they play small ball better than anyone. I think they can catch Jordan looking ahead to the second weekend matchup with Sartell.
The Underdog: Lastrup, I think they have the capability of winning a few games; however, they will have to get by a tough Hampton team the second weekend.
Overall, I think in the top half you will have Sobieski, Winsted, Hutch and Plato advance to the final 8 and I think with the home-field advantage, Hutch is going to survive to Labor Day.
In the lower half I feel Waconia, Hampton, Nisswa and Sartell make it to the final 8. I think Sartell’s pitching holds down Nisswa’s big hitters and Waconia outlasts Hampton, then Waconia comes out on top over Sartell in a magnificent game (repeat from last year’s second round).
From there I am going with my fellow Region 7 team, the Waconia Lakers, to bring back to the Crow River Valley the second consecutive state championship as they outduel host Hutchinson.
I am going to say this now, but last year I had three of the four final teams in my bracket. I am hoping that I am lucky enough again to be as accurate!
For all us amateur baseball fans this is the best three weeks of the year, so please, everyone: enjoy the games. Come out to Dassel, Hutchinson and Litchfield, enjoy as many games as you can. If you can’t, hopefully you will be able to listen to a radio broadcast of the games instead. To the teams in the tournament, good luck to you all! You have accomplished a great feat this year and regardless of how your season ends, you are all great teams. Embrace the experience and above all, have fun! Remember there are numerous teams at home just wishing they could be in the tourney instead of you.
TOM ELLIOTT – St. Cloud
Boy, I get asked this “who’s going to win?” stuff a lot in my line of work and I must say that I never have a clean answer. For the most part, I don’t predict; I react. That’s part of the gig of being a sports writer/journalist: leave the opinions to the columnists. But I’m playing along and I’ve been voting on a very subjective state Class C poll all year. So here it goes:
The Favorite: I’m reticent about saying the Sartell Muskies because I don’t want to come off as a homer. But there’s a clear case for these guys. They’ve won it before and they have dominated Region 1C and won most of their games easily during the regular season. They have a great pitching staff, led by David Deminsky, and a veteran lineup with no real weakness. That said, they’ve been tossed into a very tough lower bracket. They might have to play Jordan right away if the Brewers beat Brownton in the first round. Then, there’s Nisswa lurking on Sartell’s side of the bracket. And the Lightning are definitely a team that can win this. I’m feeling like Sartell, Jordan or Nisswa are favorites in the lower part of the bracket. The upper part is more open. I know Plato got into the state tournament the hard way and I have a lot of respect for the Blue Jays after last year. I think they’re a good bet to make a long run. There are others like Sobieski, Watkins and Fort Ripley, who could be in the mix, too.
The Dark Horse: Fergus Falls. The Hurricanes have played a very good schedule against a number of Class B teams and are certainly off the radar in our polling. According to the schedule on the MBA website they are 21-9, so they’ve played a lot of ball and should be ready. They’ll likely see Plato in their first game if the Blue Jays win their opener over Springfield.
The Upset: This is tough. It might not even happen, but how about Roseau beating Winsted and then Gaylord? I’m hesitant because a team coming from that far away may have difficulty having its full lineup for a Friday night game (7:30 p.m. in Hutchinson). The Roseau Royals are 13-6, but five of those losses have been to the Bemidji Blue Ox. It’s sort of a goofy pick to go with Roseau, but what the heck.
The Underdog – I’ll jump on the Hadley Buttermakers’ bandwagon. I don’t know much about them, except that they won Region 13A. Plus, I love their nickname.
CHRIS BASO – Midway
The Favorite: I'm going with Blue Earth as my favorite. Maybe I am too reminiscent of losing to them in the 2004 championship, but I have a feeling the Pirates make another run.
The Dark Horse: Going with Fort Ripley as the dark Horse. The Rebels have been solid all year and look to bring their quality pitching staff deep into the tournament.
The Upset: Fergus Falls over Plato in the round of 32.
The Underdog: Sticking to my homer ways, I am going to give the New York Mills Millers a nod here. They are making their first appearance since 1975 and the young group is playing with confidence.
The Favorite: First off, the bottom looks to be loaded with a few of the more household names, but I am going to stay with my pick of the Nisswa Lightning to win this half – as well as my prediction to be the 2016 state champs.
The Dark Horse: Hampton Cardinals. They won some games last year and will benefit from picking up Cannon Falls’ Keith Meyers in the draft.
The Upset: Brownton over Jordan. Maybe the Brewers will be looking ahead to the potential second-round matchup with Sartell.
The Underdog: Maple Lake. Can a recent champ be an underdog? The Lakers had a so-so regular season but have played well as of late.
TRENT SUKALSKI – Jackson
The Favorite: Plato (25-4), defending state champions and winners of 21 of their last 22 games.
The Dark Horse: Blue Earth, I’ve had them ranked high all year, so I’m not sure they’re a dark horse, but with Plato the favorite, the Pirates fill the bill here.
The Upset: Worthington to beat Sobieski. I’ve had Sobieski ranked most of the year and they are fine ballclub, but I think the way Lucas Henning is throwing right not, they get the first-round win. With Worthington’s pitching, they could surprise a lot of people.
The Underdog: Milroy Irish. The first state appearance for Bobby Dolan’s team. I’m not sure they can make a run, but It’s good to see them in the tournament.
The Favorite: The Sartell Muskies (28-2), winners of 23 straight games. Their pitching is dominant and they will be tough to beat. I’ll also take Sartell over Plato to win it all.
The Dark Horse: Lamberton, they have the tournament experience and veteran lineup to make a serious run.
The Upset: St. Peter over Maple Lake. St. Peter had to come through the Region 6C loser's bracket but is in the tournament for the third straight year.
The Underdog: Hadley Buttermakers. Myron Bennett’s team is red hot and playing their best ball of the season. I think they can make a run.
CHRIS PACK – Hayfield
The Favorite: Nisswa over Blue Earth - I just believe the Nisswa bats will carry them to the title this year. I believe they have the tougher half, but will be able to survive and defeat the veterans from Blue Earth in the final. I really like the Sartell Muskies, but they will probably play the Lamberton Long Sox in the second round (if they beat Jordan in their first game, which is a tough opener) with both aces pitching.
The Long Sox have had a great season and Johnny Pistulka can beat any team in the state and almost knocked off Plato in Round 1 last year. I think Nisswa will play whoever wins that game and will be able to score enough to win. Lamberton got a big draft pick in New Ulm's Mitch Kelly, though, and he would probably pitch that game if Lamberton can beat Sartell. I see Waconia waiting in the semis for the survivor of Sartell, Nisswa, and Lamberton, but falling to whoever comes from the bottom quadrant. Plato and Blue Earth could meet in the round of 16 and I see the winner coming out of the top half, which appears to be the easier half.
The Dark Horse: Lamberton is my dark horse team. They are one of six teams that have made the last five state tournaments (Blue Earth, Jordan, Lastrup, Loretto and Sartell being the others) and I believe could make a deep run this year. Their lineup is deeper than ever and they got a boost with New Ulm draftee Mitch Kelly.
In the top half, my dark horse is Watkins. The Clippers are a team that always seems to be in the mix, and I like their draw. They have a great chance to get to the final eight against either Plato or Blue Earth.
The Upset: Worthington over Sobieski - It will be a low-scoring game, but I think Worthington can pull the upset and beat the Tyler Jendro-led Skis.
My other upset pick is Brownton over Jordan. Brownton upset Plato in the first round of the regions and lost by a run in their last game against Plato, too. Jordan is certainly favored, but I could see Brownton catching them looking ahead to their matchup with Sartell.
The Underdog: Stewartville/Racine – The Sharks have been steady all year and have two good pitchers in Jade Boettcher and Tyler Schmitz that can carry them to a couple wins.
St. Martin is my other underdog, as I could see them beating Montgomery and Bemidji before falling to Nisswa.