Photos by Brad O’Neil. Right-click for larger images.
The Forest Lake baseball team didn’t score a run until the top of the sixth inning, but once the offense got going, it could not be stopped. The Rangers defeated Woodbury 9-1 in a Class AAAA state semifinal game June 16 at CHS Field, and will play for the state title on June 19.
Through five innings, Woodbury held a 1-0 lead, even though Ranger pitcher Luke Wallner had only allowed four scattered hits, while the Rangers had put runners in scoring position in four innings. In three of those innings, the Rangers hit into rally-killing double plays.
“It’s hard when you’re not scoring those runs early, but the boys stayed with it,” Forest Lake head coach Tal Gravelle said. “They kept a good attitude.”
The Woodbury breakthrough came with one out in the bottom of the fourth. Cleanup man Brodie Paulsen launched a Wallner offering over the 18-foot wall in right field.
The Rangers more than answered that blast when they batted around in the top of the sixth, plating six runs to turn the game on its head and demoralize their Suburban East Conference rivals.
Center fielder Cameron Kline drew a leadoff walk that convinced Woodbury coach Kevin McDermott to lift starting pitcher Jack Horman.
Horman had been far from perfect despite holding the Rangers scoreless, allowing five hits and five walks.
With Kline on first, the Royals turned to Nolan Glunz, who would only put away one of the seven batters he faced.
Ranger first baseman Mitch Jerde singled off Glunz, then third baseman Tyler Boesel attempted to sacrifice the two runners up one base, but his bunt was ill-placed, allowing Glunz to cut down Kline at third.
Right fielder Jared Wensmann came up next and hit a single that plated Jared Henderson, who was running in Jerde’s place. Tyler Mollner came in to run for Boesel, and when catcher Ian Walker hit a single to right field, Mollner rounded third and broke for home.
The Woodbury throw found the catcher’s mitt just before Mollner arrived, but his slide was strong enough to knock the ball loose. The Rangers led 2-1 and the baserunners had moved to second and third on the throw.
Wallner took a pitch off his leg to load the bases. Left fielder Mitch Longsdorf followed up with a bloop single that dropped just out of first baseman Ronnie Sweeney’s reach to score another run and reload the bases.
Shortstop Zack Raabe smashed a deep fly ball that Royal center fielder Ike Thilgen could not collect. The Ranger bench and fans flew into raptures as three runs came around to score and Raabe reached second standing up.
“I was looking for a fastball, and he gave me a fastball down the middle,” Raabe said. “I was trying to poke it into the outfield to get a run home, and luckily it went over (the center fielder’s) head.”
Horman, who had taken up a spot in left field, returned to the mound and got the last two outs. The inning ended with Kline at bat for a second time.
After Wallner allowed a walk but no damage in the bottom of the sixth, the Rangers added to their lead.
Jerde led off the seventh inning with another single – the senior enjoyed an excellent day at the plate, finishing 3-for-3 with a double and a walk.
Boesel’s attempt at a sacrifice again went awry, but in the Rangers’ favor: Horman’s throw to first was sky-high, and both Rangers were safe.
Wensmann followed with a bunt that cut along the grass near the first base line. Horman was eventually able to track the ball down, but only had time to attempt a diving tag that Wensmann avoided for an infield single.
Walker, as his name must imply, drew a base-on-balls to plate a run. Horman forced Wallner out on a shallow pop fly, but Longsdorf singled another run in, then Raabe hit a sacrifice fly to finish his day with four RBIs.
Wallner created two outs in the bottom of the seventh before Max Meyer, a Mr. Baseball finalist and recent Twins draft selection, singled.
Meyer was largely a nonfactor in the game, flying out, grounding out and hitting into a fielder’s choice in three previous appearances.
Wallner was lifted in favor of Luke Palo, who picked up the final out in one try, just as he had against Maple Grove a day earlier.
All told, the Rangers finished with 13 hits, a notable shift from their three-hit small-ball victory in the quarterfinals.
“(Woodbury) took away our bunting game, and my third base coach Kale Henry made a big call and said, ‘let’s swing away,'” Gravelle said. “We got them on the ropes. He made a great call with that.”
The Rangers (20-6) will play in a state championship game for the first time since 1993. The Rangers lost to Coon Rapids 4-2 in the the Class AA championship game – the MSHSL’s largest division at the time.
In the first semifinal earlier in the day, Eden Prairie tore apart Lakeville North 14-0. The unranked Eagles were the least-considered team to qualify for the state tournament, but opened their account by ousting No. 1 seed Wayzata in the quarterfinals.
The Eagles have scored 20 runs in their two state games, while only allowing one. They are 17-9 overall.
Lakeville North defeated Woodbury 4-3 to claim third place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wayzata rolled through the consolation bracket to claim the consolation crown.
As the last two teams standing, Forest Lake and Eden Prairie will play for the state title on the Twins’ home-ground, Target Field in Minneapolis on Monday, June 19. The three smaller classes will host their championship games ahead of the Class AAAA final; first pitch for the Rangers and Eagles is tentatively scheduled for 7 p.m.
Win or lose, the 13 seniors on the Rangers’ 20-man roster will have the honor of playing their final high school game in a Major League ballpark.
“It’s such a special group,” Gravelle said. “They’re not just talented ballplayers, this team was first-team academic all-state. They’re great young men and they know how to win baseball games.”
Raabe, one of the few underclassmen on the team, likely spoke for all the Rangers when he said that “words can’t express how happy I am” to be going to the championship game.
“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid – now it’s come true and we’ve got to go win it,” Raabe said.