TOWN BALL TALES: Four storylines to watch heading into the 100th playing of the Minnesota Amateur State Baseball Tournament

The 2023 Minnesota 100th amateur baseball tournament promises to be a showcase of talented players and exciting games. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the tournament, which has been a staple of Minnesota’s baseball culture for the past century.

The tournament will feature teams from all over the state, representing a diverse range of communities and players of different ages and skill levels. The games will be played at Delano, Dassel, Litchfield, and Waconia, providing a unique opportunity for fans to see the best amateur talent from across the state.

Delano, Dassel, and Litchfield will host the 100th MBA State Tournament. They were one of eight different proposals; the three communities were able to secure the bid for the 100th-anniversary tournament in October 2021. In order to get the bid, the three communities had to collaborate and present their proposal to the MBA board.

The passion for baseball and wanting to share that passion with an expected crowd of 25,000 drove the tournament committee to put its best foot forward when creating a bid for this once-in-a-lifetime tournament.
Mark Forsman, chairman of the DC Saints and president of the Minnesota Baseball Association, said that the bid submitted was strong, and with the area’s history of handling successful events for the MBA in the past, he felt that the group had a great chance.

“There’s nothing like watching an amateur baseball game,” Forsman said. “The excitement, especially when the teams are evenly matched and the crowd is into it. I just love it.”

The 100th anniversary of the Minnesota Amateur State Baseball Tournament is set to get underway this coming weekend in Delano, Dassel, Litchfield, and Waconia. There will be 48 teams from Class C and 32 teams from Class B/A hoping to take home the hardware come Labor Day weekend.

The season as a whole has been an exciting one across the state and the state tournament should only add to that. Here’s a look at some of the top storylines from across the state heading into the first weekend of the best time of the year, the state tournament.

Minneota Mudhens finally break through

The town of Minneota is often known for its dominance in high school sports. The Minneota Mudhens are only adding to that. For the first time since 1936, Minneota is headed to the state tournament after an impressive performance in the Region 9C Tournament where they claimed the region title and a bye in the first round of the Class C state tournament.

“We’ve been on cloud nine with excitement,” longtime Mudhens player Tyson Sonnenburg said. “It’s been a goal for a long time. Just to finally be able to break through feels really good. In the past, we’ve been towards the top of the league but we just couldn’t get it done in regions. We’d have good regular seasons and then in the playoffs, our bats just never seemed to come alive and we lost some heartbreakers. It just never really worked out but this year was different as we got it done.”

“We’re just excited to be part of it finally,” teammate Austin Buysse added. “I’m glad we have a first-round bye but I also just want to get out there and play already. It’s always been a goal of ours to get to the state tournament. We’ve had some really good teams in the past but in the playoffs, we just never really pulled through. We’ve lost some close ballgames and couldn’t break through.”

The Mudhens were on the verge of making it to state a year ago but came up just short. Minneota entered the region tournament as the No. 1 seed but they were upset by the No. 4 seed. In their next game, the Mudhens were left without key players due to a wedding as they were forced to wait at least one more year to get the state tournament experience.

“Last year was tough,” Sonnenburg said. “It was kind of tough to go out that way.”

“We’ve had a pretty good core here,” Buysse said. “A lot of guys have gone through the heartbreak of missing it. I think that really helped us in these playoffs. We knew what kind of team we were and just played our game and knew we could break through. That experience of winning some playoff games in the past and how we slowly progressed helped us break through this year.”

Despite how the 2022 season ended, the Mudhens had a feeling that 2023 could be a fun year from the start.

“This year a couple of different guys have said they have a good feeling about this year,” Sonnenburg said. “There was just a good feeling going into this year. We have a good mix of veterans and younger talent that has a few seasons under their belt now. It’s just kind of the perfect mix at the right time. The guys just felt good about this year and believed in ourselves.”

That feeling proved to be right as Minneota captured their first state tournament appearance since 1936. It’s also the first time the Mudhens as an organization have reached the big show since starting in 2009.

“This year, it was just amazing how we came together,” Buysse said. “Our pitching really led the way with shutouts over Morris and Dumont. To clinch a spot for the first time is really special and something a lot of us have been talking about for a long time.”

Not only did the Mudhens clinch a spot in the state tournament, they won the region title as well for the first time earning them a bye in the first round.

“We were happy to go to state but to win the region was special,” Buysse. “To do it against Dumont, a team who we have so much respect for, and beat those guys was pretty special.”

The heart and soul of the Mudhens comes from their homegrown talent. Minneota has just two players on their roster that didn’t graduate from Minneota High School. They’ve stuck together through good and bad seasons and it’s paying off with a state tournament appearance this season.

“We’re all Minneota guys,” Buysse said. “We’re really proud of that and hang our hats on that. Our whole starting lineup is MInneota graduates and we’re really proud of that. We’re all good friends and that helps a lot.”

What the Mudhens will bring to the state tournament is a team that relies on pitching and defense. While the bats can get hot at times, it’s the pitching staff and the guys behind them that will propel them. Jake Hennen picked up his first career complete-game shutout in a win over Dumont in the Region 9C Tournament that secured their spot in the state tournament. Other arms to watch for Minneota are veteran ace Danny Hennen and Ryan Dalager.

“Pitching and defense is really what we pride ourselves on,” Buysse said. “Pitching has been a stable thing for us the last few years. We had guys step up this year for our staff. In past years, we’ve had a couple of tough stretches where we weren’t hitting but this year they’ve been more consistent. Our hitting took a jump this year which helped us clinch a state tournament berth but the pitching has always been our bread and butter.”

The buzz around the Mudhens and their state tournament appearance includes the community. Although there has been support from the start, the ballpark in Minneota is becoming a go-to place for members of the community.

“Our fan base is awesome,” Buysse said. “We get a lot of support. Ever since 2009 when we started the Mudhens, we’ve slowly grown our fan base and they were super excited when we secured our spot at state. A lot of people in Minneota have never really been to the amateur state tournament and watched so they’re just really excited to get this experience. They’ve been with us through the good times and the bad times so we’re really thankful for the community. We’re very fortunate to have the people that we do.”

“We’ve had amazing support from the community and our attendance has been awesome since the start,” Sonnenburg added. “To see the support from them has been amazing. It definitely adds to the excitement of this being our first trip.”

The Mudhens will make their state tournament debut Saturday, Aug. 26 against the winner of Elrosa and Hadley. While the team lacks state tournament experience, they are excited to see what it’s all about and represent their community on the big stage.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Buysse said. “We’ve seen the videos and all the news on it. I think we’re just really excited to get there and experience it all. We’re very fortunate that our first state tournament is going to be the 100th anniversary. We know all about the parks and how beautiful those parks are. We’re really excited to experience it all and everything it has to offer. This is a great opportunity to make a name for ourselves. It’s going to be tough because every team is really good at this point but we’ll just have to play our game and hopefully, we can make a run.”

Courtland Cubs turn things around with first state tournament appearance in 78 years

The Courtland Cubs have a long and interesting history. After not having a team for 16 years, the Cubs as an organization returned in 2015 and despite some tough seasons early on, just eight years later secured their first state tournament appearance since 1945.

“I don’t have words to describe it,” Courtland manager Chase Meyer said. “I want to say four or five years ago we didn’t win a game the entire year. To go from that to where we are now, it’s really cool. It’s a really fun team to play with. We have a never say die attitude from a lot of these guys.”

For 16 years, baseball didn’t exist for the Courtland Cubs. In 2015, Herb Schaper and Myron Fluegge came together in hopes to bring baseball back to the small town of Courtland just 10 miles from New Ulm.
After having to prove themselves to get back into the Tomahawk East League in 2015, baseball was finally back in Courtland. The early times in the return of baseball to Courtland had some tough years but the Cubs have taken big steps in each of the last three seasons. In their first six years of being back in the Tomahawk East League, the Cubs won just 14 games. In the past three seasons, they’ve posted a 35-13 record highlighted by winning the Region 2C title this past season to get back to the state tournament and end their 78-year drought.

Meyer is one of three players/managers still on the roster from 2015 when the Cubs returned to Courtland. The other players are Corey Schultz, the former manager of the team, and Tad Voges. Those three have seen it all over the years. The first step for those guys was to get the Cubs back into the Tomahawk East League.
After going 18 years without an amateur baseball team, the Cubs were readmitted to the TEL in 2015. The Cubs had not been in the TEL since 1997. In a meeting on January 25, 2015, the TEL heard from three different teams seeking to join the league with one of them being the Courtland Cubs. Schultz and Dusty Plaisance represented Courtland at the meeting. The league took two votes, the first of which was to decide how many teams to allow in the league. After deciding to allow just one team to join, it was decided that the Courtland Cubs be readmitted to the league after previously being part of the league earlier.

“It was really difficult to get the team back in,” Courtland Cubs historian Myron Fluegge said. “We really struggled to get wins early on. Now here they are the No. 1 seed beating out Stark and New Ulm.”

Fluegge played for the Cubs throughout his high school career and beyond. Although his playing days are done, he’s still heavily invested in the team and has enjoyed their recent success more than anyone.

“There’s a pretty good fan base when it comes to the Cubs,” he said. “All the other teams in the TEL are within 20 miles of each other. New Ulm over the years has been the traditional team that has gone. For us to come from where we were and beat them, that’s another cool thing for us.”

Still invested in the team with some family connections, the 2023 season for Courtland has been a special one for Fluegge and his family.

“It’s very meaningful,” Fluegge said. “I’ve got two grandsons playing on the team right now. It’s extra meaningful to me. When I played in the 1960s, we never even got close to the state tournament during my years of play. We’re so thrilled for the team with my past connections to the team and now to see them go to state for just the second time is very special.”

While the Cubs knew they would be in a spot to break through to the state tournament, they knew they needed to play their best at the right time. They did just that, not only qualifying for the state tournament but winning the Region 2C title by knocking off perennial powerhouse New Ulm in the championship game.

“It’s kind of eye-opening and a real experience for us,” Meyer said. “The last couple of weeks we’ve been playing some really good ball. The group of guys I have are a very talented bunch. They’re young but very talented. They were out for blood against the Brewers. There’s no team that could have put a bigger smile on their faces in order to get the No. 1 seed than beating New Ulm.”

It was a rewarding feeling for the Cubs for many reasons. After paying their dues early on including a winless season, Cortland finally broke through after coming so close the past two seasons.

“After the last two or three years we’ve been one or two games away, frustration was definitely mounting for us,” Meyer said. “We knew we had a team that was capable of competing at that high level. It’s just one of those things where we were so happy when we came through this season when it mattered.”

The Cubs state tournament experience is limited but that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready to keep their magical season rolling.They know how tough things will be in the state tournament but they are up for the challenge.

“I want to come up there and play our game,” Meyer said. “We are a really fast team. We’re going to have to do the little things right. We have some power in the middle of our lineup but for the most part, we have to play fundamental baseball and avoid mistakes.”

New look Black Sox find their way back to state

The Carver Black Sox had their five-straight state tournament appearances streak snapped in 2022. Following their final game, a majority of their roster decided to hang it up leaving the organization in a tough spot and plenty of doubts about what the 2023 season would look like.

A meeting at Maynard’s in Excelsior with manager Brian Tichy along with his four players was the turning point as they said would return for the 2023 season as things began to become more clear for Carver. Veteran Bailey Melz assured his manager he’ll have some players aboard and they’ll be able to put together a team.

“In the offseason, I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back,” Tichy said. “We met at Maynard’s and Bailey came to me and said I’ve got some guys. Not only did he do that, but he got good guys. Not just good players, but good people. When you have a guy like Bailey who is just a good guy, it’s no surprise that he brought good people in. You ask what Bailey brings to us he brings integrity, composure, and sincerity. He’s just a good human being.”

Things got off to a tough start for the new-look Black Sox. Carver lost their first seven games of the season and it was looking like things might take some time before they become a contender again. It only took a month or two.

“We have a lot of young dudes and they figured things out,” Melz said. “It’s a different style of baseball and things started to click. We started playing better defense and the bats came around too.”

The Black Sox were playing their best ball of the season when it mattered most. After knocking off St. Boni in the Crow River Valley League playoffs for their 12th straight playoff win, the Black Sox stole a state tournament bid out of Region 7C as the No. 7 seed. Carver upset No. 2 Plato in the first round and they won a thriller against No. 4 Mayer in a state qualifier/elimination game.

“If you get hot at the right time of the year you can make it,” Melz said. “From starting where we were to now making it to state, it feels pretty good. We battled all year and stuck with it and now they’re rewarded for it.”

The Carver Black Sox will open up the Class C state tournament by taking on the defending state champions. The Nisswa Lightning finished as the No. 2 seed out of Region 8C and the two will square off Sunday, Aug. 20 at Delano Municipal Baseball Park.

“It’s going to be so cool because they have no idea what it’s like,” Melz said about going back to state with a new group. “It’s unlike any baseball they’ve played before. I’m really excited to see them walking into those beautiful parks and feel the atmosphere and what it’s like for a state tournament. The cool part is I’ve coached a lot of these guys when they were younger. Now being able to play with them and have the season that we’ve had is something special. You never stop having fun. There will be one day when someone tells you can’t play anymore, but while you can, you just take every single moment in because there’s nothing quite like it.”

Delano Athletics looking to bring it home

Delano Municipal Baseball Park has been the host of the state tournament five different times. The Delano Athletics have been to the state tournament 27 times including this year. Despite all that, the A’s have never played a state tournament game on their home field.

That all changes this year as the A’s not only are hosting the state tournament but come into the tournament as one of the favorites to win it all.

“We’re extremely excited,” Delano’s Toby Hanson said. “Anytime you make a state tournament, no matter where it is, it’s a huge accomplishment. To do it now and be able to play in our own backyard throws a whole other element into it. We’re all pumped up and looking forward to it. To be able to do it for the first time ever is something special.”

It’s not the first time in recent history that the A’s have had this opportunity. Delano hosted the 2019 state tournament along with Maple Lake and Dassel. The dream that year came to a heartbreaking end for the A’s. After a dominant season like they did this year in the North Star League, Delano went into the Region 12C Tournament as the No. 1 seed and appeared to be a lock for the state tournament. It didn’t play itself out that way as Delano lost their first two games of the region tournament and were forced to sit out of the state tournament.

“There were a lot of people saying that hopefully 2019 doesn’t happen again,” Hanson said about the feeling coming into this season. “To get that off our backs and officially clinch our ticket makes it that more special. A lot of the same guys were on the team in 2019 and it was kind of a nightmare. There is no guarantee to ever make these state tournaments. It’s tough. For us to be able to do it, it’s a testament to our guys living up to the challenge and taking it day by day and game by game.”

There wasn’t a feeling of disappointment this year for the A’s. After a dominant regular season, Delano bullied their way through the Region 12C Tournament going a perfect 3-0 while outsourcing their opponents 20-0 on their way to winning their second-straight region title. After getting a taste of success in the state tournament last year by making the semifinals, Delano is ready to roll for what they hope is another deep postseason run.

“We’re excited after we got a little taste last year when we made that nice run,” Hanson said. “We know how tough it’s going to be though. Everyone in the state tournament is going to give you their best. At the end of the day, it’s baseball. We need to execute the basic fundamentals of the game and take it one game at a time and play our game. If we do so, we’re confident that we can put ourselves in a position to make a deep run again. We got all the pieces that you could ask for.”

Coming off the big run last year, Delano had been ranked as one of the top teams all season long. They’ve lived up to the hype so far entering the state tournament with a 33-2 record and as the No. 1 ranked team in Class C. Taking it one game at a time has been the key for the A’s all season long and it will be the focus as well heading into the state tournament. It’s been 19 years since a team hosted and won the state championship in the same year. The Jordan Brewers did that in 2004 with an impressive run on their home field winning the Class B title. It wasn’t easy for them as their first four games of the tournament were decided by three runs or less before knocking Rochester 5-1 to win the state title.

“You have those expectations and there is a target on our back,” Hanson said. “We’ve talked about it since day one against Chaska that we’re worried about Chaska now and we’ll worry about the next one after that. We’ve had a great year and just need to stay locked in and focused on the game coming up. The job is not done. It’s one game at a time. We’ve been executing all year long and if we can continue to do that, we’ll put ourselves in a position to make a big run.”

Delano features a mix of veterans that has been playing together for years along with young talent that has stepped into big spots. That group sticking together through tough times in state tournaments in past seasons has Delano looking to make another deep run.

“It’s a great balance of veterans and young guys,” Hanson said. “You need a little bit of both on all good teams. The biggest thing for me, and people saw in last year’s state tournament, was our experience. We struggled at state tournaments in the past but a lot of those guys got that needed experience. We don’t over hype the situations and it’s just another baseball game. We’ve gotten used to being in those types of spots with big crowds and everything that comes with the state tournament atmosphere. We’ve had a great blend of chemistry all year long from coaches to players. We’re a team that plays all-around baseball. We take pride in doing the little things. We’re a team that sticks together and plays well together. We take pride in that for sure.”

Delano will open the state Friday. Aug. 25 against the winner of Roseau and Spring Hill. Spring Hill knocked off Delano in the first round of the 2021 state tournament and could be a potential rematch for the A’s.

“We know crowds are going to be crazy,” Hanson said. “They always are for state tournaments and now with us hosting it’s going to be a little bit extra.”

The following is a look at a few more interesting stories and facts heading into the 100th Anniversary of the Minnesota Amateur State Baseball Tournament.

Odds and Ends
• When the Young America Cardinals make their Class B state tournament debut, they will do so against a familiar face. Former Plato star Chris Odegaard now plays for the Pirates and has become one of their top pitchers. The Cardinals and Odegaard have had many battles over the years in the Crow River Valley League and will add another chapter to it on opening weekend.
• Lions Field in Waconia is in rare company. After being one of the main hosts for the 2021 tournament, the Waconia Baseball Association was called upon again with the new format to help ease the schedule on the three main sites. It’s the third year in a row Lions Field will host state tournament games after being used as an emergency field in 2022 due to weather.
• The Watertown Red Devils came up short in their quest for another deep postseason run. Ace pitcher Holt Hunziker will represent the Red Devils though as a Green Isle draftee. The first matchup for Hunziker could be a fun one if he takes the mound as the Irish are set to take on his former team the Jackson Bulls.

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