Photos by Brad O’Neil. Right-click for larger images.
The Forest Lake baseball team fell just short of its state-title dream, losing 5-1 to a red-hot Eden Prairie squad in the Class AAAA state championship game June 19.
“I’m really proud of our players,” Gravelle said. “It’s tough to lose after you’ve made it this far. In 10 years, they’ll realize what an accomplishment it was, but it’s hard right now.”
The Rangers were seeded No. 2 to start the state tournament but became the top remaining team before they even took the field. Unseeded Eden Prairie, the least-considered team to make the tournament, upset No. 1 Wayzata 6-1 in the first game of the quarterfinal round.
In their own quarterfinal matchup at CHS Field in St. Paul, the Rangers defeated Maple Grove 6-5.
The Rangers fell behind 4-0 early, but fought back to send the game to extra innings, keyed by a three-run home run by senior pitcher Cameron Kline.
Maple Grove scored a run in the top of the eighth, but Tyler Boesel hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game again, and pinch runner Jared Henderson scored on a suicide squeeze bunt by Jake Wensmann.
The Rangers rolled over Suburban East Conference rival Woodbury in the semifinals, turning a late 1-0 deficit into a 9-1 victory. Zack Raabe slammed a three-run double as part of a six-run sixth inning for the Rangers, and earned another RBI in the seventh. Luke Wallner pitched against all but the final Woodbury batter, striking out two to earn the win.
Eden Prairie knocked off Lakeville North 14-0 to set up the final matchup.
The state title game was played at Target Field, the last of four Class championship games. Parkers Prairie, Minnehaha Academy and Waconia had already claimed state titles in the smaller divisions.
Kline mowed down the Eagles early, facing only 10 batters across the first three innings and striking out seven of them.
Kline also scored the Rangers’ only run in the bottom of the first. With two out, Kline smashed a double to deep center field. First baseman Mitch Jerde drew a walk, and third baseman Boesel hit a grounder to the left side that the Eagle third baseman could not handle. Kline, running on contact, easily came around to score on the error.
After striking out the side in both the second and third innings, Kline ran into trouble in the fourth.
Eden Prairie center fielder Mike Espe reached base on an error by Boesel that mimicked the mistake that had given the Rangers the lead. Will Pahl and Connor Young earned walks to load the bases, and Ryan Wrobleski hit a ground-rule double to score two. With two out, Matthew Dolan ripped a grounder up the middle to score two more.
“We had the momentum early, but they had a couple of big hits, and we had a few miscues,” Gravelle said. “(Eden Prairie) has a really tough lineup.”
Kline struck out two Eagles in that inning to bring his four-inning total to nine, but the Rangers were down by three runs.
Eden Prairie pitcher Jack Zigan would catch fire over his final four innings to ensure that the Rangers would never threaten to catch up. After striking out just three Rangers in the first three innings, Zigan would mow down eight the rest of the way while allowing only two singles and one walk.
So dominant was Zigan in the late going that each of the last seven Ranger outs was recorded via strikeout.
“Their pitcher was outstanding,” Gravelle said. “He was hitting his spots; he was living on the outside corner. He had a very nice breaking ball that he kept low.”
The Eagles added an insurance run in the top of the sixth. With men on first and second, Bailey DeMets ripped a triple to center field. The lead runner scored, but the Rangers prevented further damage when second baseman Jared Swanson made a relay throw to catcher Ian Walker to cut down the trailing runner.
In the top of the seventh, the Eagles put a runner on second with one out. Espe hit a high pop-up that Jerde caught in foul territory. The runner on second unwisely attempted to advance to third, and Jerde threw a perfect strike to Boesel to tag him out.
Wallner earned a two-out walk in the final frame, but the Rangers could not rally. Center fielder Mitch Longsdorf was called out on strikes to end the baseball season and send the Eden Prairie team and fans into raptures.
Although the Eagles’ three wins at state were upsets on paper, they outscored their opponents 25-2.
The Rangers finished the season 20-7 overall and in second place in Class AAAA. Jerde and Kline were named to the All-State team; Kline and Wensmann were listed on the All-Tournament squad. The Rangers won the Gold Team award for academics, the state’s highest scholastic honor.
The Forest Lake squad will be nearly unrecognizable a year from now: Of the 20 players on the 2017 varsity roster, 13 were seniors. Kline, Jerde, Wensmann, Walker, Swanson, Wallner, Boesel, Luke Palo, Thomas Maurer, Ross Peterson, Jason Schultz, Brenden Waataja and Nick Ellefson provided leadership and experience that will be sorely missed next year.
“(The seniors) came here with expectations to win the game,” Gravelle said. “They’ve had a great career here, they’ve played a lot of baseball together and there’s a lot of special friendships. Seeing that all end is tough. This senior class and the one last year have set a bar that’s really high. It’s amazing how it inspires the younger players to step up. The way they’ve impacted our program is immeasurable.”