Despite the odds, an impromptu overnight stay in Grand Rapids due to a rain delay and their head coach unable to travel with the team due to work, the second-seeded Forest Lake Rangers clinched the Section 7AAA title last Thursday with a 4-3 win over the Thunderhawks.
The Rangers, who lost to Grand Rapids in the section final last year, took an early lead in the bottom of the first inning. Senior Dylan Dresel reached base on a single, stole second, reached third on a sacrifice by senior Beau Fandel, then crossed the plate when senior Noah Brown delivered a two-out infield single.
Forest Lake drew up a similar play in the second inning off a leadoff single by senior Kyle Parker. Junior Brett Gravelle moved Parker to second on a sacrifice, then Parker scored when junior Alex Egle singled to right field to make it a 2-0 game.
Third-seeded Grand Rapids answered and pulled ahead in the top of the third inning. It was a tough defensive frame for the Rangers, and the Thunderhawks capitalized with three runs for a 3-2 lead.
In the fifth inning, the Rangers evened up the score. Senior Reid Larson laced a one-out single, followed by another single for Dresel, while senior Jack Schmidt reached base after being hit by a pitch. Fandel hit a sacrifice fly to score Larson to tie it up at three apiece.
Forest Lake shut down the Thunderhawks in the sixth and seventh innings and started the bottom of the seventh with a leadoff walk by Egle. Following a pitching change for the home team, Larson sacrificed to move Egle to second base. After a Ranger strikeout, Schmidt came up big for Forest Lake with a two-out single to left center to score the winning run, 4-3.
Senior Phil Sauer pitched through six innings, while Schmidt recorded the win by closing out the final three outs of the game in the top of the seventh inning. Gravelle also credits his coaching staff, including Kale Henry for stepping in in Gravelle’s absence.
“It was nice to get revenge,” head coach Tal Gravelle said. “They knocked us out in the final last year, and we didn’t want to have to go to two games with them this year. We definitely wanted to take care of business right away, and they did.”
Forest Lake will make its fourth appearance in five years in the state baseball tournament. It’s the first trip to state as head coach for Tal Gravelle. The Rangers made it under Brian Raabe from 2009-2011.
The tournament begins today, June 13 at Midway Stadium in St. Paul, where fifth-seeded Forest Lake faces fourth-seeded Mounds View at 12:30 p.m.. The Mustangs defeated the Rangers twice this year in close games.
Tal Gravelle said his team is excited for the matchup, since they were just one out away from beating the Mustangs in early May. But the Rangers will have to be on their A-game offensively, as they face one of the top pitching prospects in the state: Nebraska signee Max Knutson. The left-handed pitcher, who hurls a 95-mph fastball, was just named the Pioneer Press Player of the Year.
“The kids have seen him before, and we know we can get some runs off of him,” Tal Gravelle said. “We pitch well and we have better defense. We’re going to focus on scoring early and putting the pressure on them.”