As far as most people in the state are concerned, the Watertown-Mayer baseball team, the No. 5 seed in their own subsection entering the playoffs, will be somewhat of an afterthought going into the state tournament.
The Royals have been ready and willing to play the underdog card so far this postseason, and they say they’ll gladly do it again going into this week’s action at Dick Putz field in St. Cloud. But deep down, you get the feeling the Royals don’t really see things that way.
“We’re not scared of playing anybody,” Watertown-Mayer senior center fielder Nick Tschida said. “We can compete with anybody, and we’ve proven that in our section.”
The Royals will open the state tournament on Thursday, June 13, at 2:30 p.m. against third-seeded Minnehaha Academy (17-5), which is ranked No. 6 in the state according to the most recent coaches association poll. If the Royals win, they would advance to a 2:30 p.m. game on Friday against either second-seeded Delano (17-2) or Perham (16-5).
Even if the Royals lose in the first round, they would still play again in the consolation bracket Friday at Joe Faber Field in St. Cloud, but would be able to finish no higher than fifth.
At this point though, the Royals have their eyes set on staying in the championship bracket, even with a first-round matchup against one of the state’s best teams looming on Thursday. Confidence certainly won’t be hard for the Royals to come by.
“With our pitching and the way we’ve been playing defense lately, I totally believe we have every chance to play with the teams that are down there,” Watertown-Mayer coach Justin Stohs said. “We’ve already played the best, and we’ve beaten the best.”
Minnehaha Academy certainly knows a thing or two about strong pitching itself. Runs have been at a premium so far this postseason against the Redhawks, who have surrendered only three of them in four games. The Redhawks opened Section 4AA play with a 10-1 win against St. Croix Lutheran and a 2-1 win over St. Paul Academy. The Redhawks then knocked off St. Anthony Village twice in a row, 2-1 and 2-0, to advance to the state tournament.
The Redhawks’ pitching staff is led by standout John Pryor, a Mr. Baseball finalist who has given up only one earned run all season, and depending on Minnehaha Academy’s strategy, he would seem likely to face Watertown-Mayer in the first round.
Pryor, a Division I recruit, will play for Lipscomb University next season. According to Perfect Game USA, a scouting service, Pryor’s fastball generally tops out in the mid-to-upper 80s. His season stats include a 7-0 record, 0.26 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 53 innings.
But even if the Redhawks try to get past Watertown-Mayer without using Pryor in the first round, the rest of Minnehaha Academy’s pitching staff isn’t bad either. Nicholas Grachek went 5-2 with a 1.80 ERA, and the team’s top five pitchers combined for a 1.26 ERA.
Of course, Watertown-Mayer’s pitching staff has been stingy as well. The Royals have allowed only 13 runs in eight postseason games, so a little offense could go a long way when the two teams meet on Thursday. As a team, the Royals boast a 2.10 ERA this season. The staff is led by Michael Herd (7-1, 0.47 ERA, 23K) and Andrew Nichols (5-1, 1.45 ERA, 31K).
Minnehaha Academy’s offense is led by Ford Schroeder, a .359 hitter with 23 hits, 14 RBIs and one home run this year, and Eamonn Manion, a .364 hitter with 20 hits and 12 RBIs.
Watertown-Mayer’s offense is led by North Dakota State recruit Matt Elsenpeter, a .443 hitter who set a school record this year with 35 hits. Nichols also hit .381 and Brendan Weege hit .373. Watertown-Mayer hit .301 as a team.
The Royals have certainly defied the odds so far in these playoffs, emerging from Section 2AA by winning six consecutive elimination games. And, as a No. 5 seed, they’ve even overcome the entire premise of a double elimination tournament, which is to protect the higher seeds against fluke losses and give them the best chance of advancing to the state tournament.
But in this case, the double elimination format gave the Royals a second shot against Holy Family, the third-ranked Class AA team in the state. The second time around, the Royals took advantage with a 3-0 win that knocked the Fire out of the tournament. The Royals wasted little time proving that win over Holy Family was no fluke, eliminating eighth-ranked Glencoe-Silver Lake from the playoffs later that same night.
The Royals say their wins over some of the state’s toughest teams show that they should be considered a serious contender in the state tournament.
“We just beat the No. (3) and No. (8) teams in the state to get there, so we’re right there,” senior shortstop Matt Elsenpeter said. “Target Field is the goal, and I think we can get there.”
Elsenpeter was referring to the state championship game, which will be played Saturday, June 15, at the home of the Minnesota Twins. But in order to get there, the Royals will have to first win a pair of games in St. Cloud, and this time they won’t get a second chance.
At this point, though, Stohs implied that his team would have the advantage of essentially playing with house money.
“The pressure is on the other teams,” he said. “We can just go out there, and we’ll play that (underdog) card.”
Contact Matt Bunke at email@example.com