Unseeded Saint Thomas Academy won two of three games to claim third place in the state Class AAA baseball tournament on June 15-16 in Jordan.

The Cadets surprised many by blasting top-seeded Willmar 16-9 in the first round. STA fell to Grand Rapids 4-3 in the semifinals the next day, but recovered to outlast second-seeded Sartell 16-15 in a barnburner that evening.

STA coach Jon Engeswick told his players afterward that they needed to focus on the big picture.

“I told them that if losing a game in the state tournament is going to be the worst thing that happens to you coming out of the pandemic, you’re going to have a pretty blessed life,” he said. “The third-place game was a great note to end on. It would’ve been better to have been at Target Field (for the championship), but our kids were excited to finish third as well.”

The Cadets were back on the field this spring after winning the state AAA title two years ago. The COVID-pandemic canceled last year’s season.

The victory over Willmar in the opening round was keyed by a five-run third inning that put STA up 11-5. Senior Ben Taxdahl led the way offensively by going four-for-four with five runs scored. Sophomore Gavin Engelbert had three hits, one of them a homer, and drove in four runs. Senior Tristin Thilmany also had three hits with four runs scored and pitched five innings to pick up the win.

Engeswick said he liked the look and feel of his team going into the state tourney. “The pressure was off. There were obviously no expectations,” he said. “We just said to go out there and have fun.”

 

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“He was literally our last pitcher,” Engeswick said about Mohs, “but he tied the hitters up out there.”

The Cadets couldn’t find that same offensive production in the semifinal round against Grand Rapids. They weren’t able to do much to solve Thunderhawks’ pitcher Myles Gunderson, who hurled the complete game victory while striking out five and walking none. Gunderson allowed eight hits, but kept them scattered.

Thilmany again was in the middle of things with two hits and an RBI. Taxdahl, sophomore Mike Miller and senior Joe Middleton all scored for STA. Taxdahl pitched 4.2 innings and allowed four runs, while striking out nine.

The Cadets had the tying run at third base in the seventh inning, but they failed to bring sophomore Asa Rapp home.

“They’re a well-coached team and they played a solid game,” Engeswick said about Grand Rapids afterward.

He was happy with the way his team rebounded against Sartell in the third-place game that evening. Engeswick played every senior in that last tourney game. “The kids kind of reenergized themselves,” he said.

Engeswick singled out senior pitcher Alex Mohs, who saved the game for STA by hurling a scoreless seventh inning. Mohs was injured almost the entire season and hadn’t played at all until the Sartell game. The Cadets used four pitchers and the Sabres sent five to the mound.

“He was literally our last pitcher,” Engeswick said about Mohs, “but he tied the hitters up out there.”

The slugfest featured hot sticks aplenty for the victors. Senior Simon Kotok and Taxdahl both had four hits and Taxdahl collected five RBIs on the night. Senior Tim O’Brien and Thilmany added three hits and two RBIs each. Middleton went two-for-two with an RBI and two runs scored.

The Cadets (19-10) were down 15-14 with only one out remaining in the seventh, but rallied for two runs to claim the victory. STA finished with 20 hits and three errors, while Sartell (22-5) had 14 hits and seven errors.

— Bill Wagner

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