First District tourney wide open
There isn't a team in the First District claiming that this week's state-qualifying American Legion baseball tournament is theirs to win.
There are also about four of those teams who realize that if they can get their act together — and handle the rigors of the tournament's nine-inning games — that this just might be their year to advance.
Count all three of Rochester's Legion teams — the Patriots (No. 1 seed, 9-3 First District), A's (No. 3 seed, 6-6) and Redhawks (No. 4 seed, 6-6) — among the latter.
All three have talent, but all three also have an unusual amount of young talent, with the fits and starts that go with that.
"With our team you can flip a coin," Redhawks coach Tom Senne said. "We can show up and hit the ball and not make errors and win. Or we can make errors, not hit and get smoked."
Forced to make a pick in this eight-team field, the Patriots are the most logical choice. They did win the First District title after all. But ...
"Realistically, there are four teams that have a chance to win," Patriots coach Terry Heiderscheit said. "But there is no clear-cut favorite. You need about five pitchers in a tournament like this who are solid. When our young arms are throwing strikes, we are competitive. When they're not, we don't do well."
Back to state?
The Patriots — who are the last Rochester team to advance to state, in 2009 — begin their title quest in the double-elimination tournament at 5 p.m. Tuesday. They've got an unsettling first-round matchup, hosting No. 8 seed Kasson. Kasson is in the First District but didn't play a regular-season league schedule.
Still, it was Kasson-Mantorville that won the state Class AA baseball title this past spring. So, Heiderscheit is wary of Kasson, even with its No. 8 seed.
"If Kasson shows up and plays a good game, they can win," he said. "I'm not taking anything for granted."
The Patriots are led by a couple of strong pitchers, Zach Schwieters and Jack Kall. Schwieters is 5-2 with a 2.4 ERA. Kall is 5-1 with a 2.2 ERA. Schweiters recently had a game in which he struck out 12 La Crosse hitters and also pitched well in the powerful Gopher Classic
Top Patriots hitters are Sam Broman (.387 batting average), Kaeleb Stangler (.378) and Jake Dravis (.367).
A's are still young
The A's have recently been playing their best baseball, cutting way back on their errors and avoiding bad innings. They've done it with as young a team as there is in the First District.
Ross Luinenburg, a 6-foot-5 pitcher, has been terrific. He's coming off a win over Winona in which he threw seven scoreless innings, struck out seven and didn't walk a batter.
The A's most natural hitter is Riese Zmolek.
The A's lead off Tuesday by hosting No. 6 seed Austin/Albert Lea.
Strength in pitching
Senne appreciated the way his team played in the Gopher Classic, when it finished an impressive 3-2.
"When we put it all together, we can be very good," Senne said.
The Redhawks' strength is their pitching, with Jackson Douglas, Tommy Hanson, John Lundquist and Sam Hinsch all with dependable arms.
Lundquist has been their most consistent thrower. He is 4-3 with a 3.52 ERA. Top hitters are Michael Michalak (.429 in seven games) and Brad Mathiowetz (.415). Mathiowetz is coming off a broken finger and might not play.
The No. 4-seeded Redhawks are led by their pitchers.
"I think we have great (pitching) depth," Senne said. "And when you get in nine-inning games (up from seven during the regular season), you need pitching."
The Redhawks host No. 5 seed and defending First District champion Winona on Tuesday.
After Tuesday's games, the tournament shifts to Riverland Community College in Austin.