What a difference a year makes. Following the cancellation of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, the Minnesota American Legion Baseball Committee announced a few weeks ago that a record 372 teams from across the state are playing this summer.

That competition has resumed, complete with state tournaments planned for late July and early August, has the coaches of local Division I senior teams (players 19 and younger) more than excited.

“I think it’s absolutely fantastic that kids are back on the field,” said Mike Brown, manager of the Hamline Red team, which draws players mostly from Highland Park, Central and Saint Paul Academy high schools. “It’s such a blessing. The kids are getting a chance to play ball again. I see nothing but smiles on their faces.”

Legion baseball
Jordan Young of the Challengers singles in the first game of a double-header against Oakdale at Saint Thomas Academy’s Jack Jensen Field on June 30. The Challengers won the first game 5-3 and lost the second game 9-8. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“Our kids are pretty fired up,” added Bobby Thompson, coach of the West Saint Paul Challenger team, which includes players from Henry Sibley and Saint Thomas Academy. “We’re kind of back to normal this year.”

Hamline Purple coach Jake Smith said spirits are also high among his players, who hail from Cretin-Derham Hall. “You even see that from the players who might not even be playing in the game at the time,” he said.

The coaches said the resumption of the spring high school season eliminated a lot of pent-up emotions and created momentum for summer ball. Their upbeat attitude was in ample supply from the Legion’s state command post as well.

“Many people were worried that canceling the 2020 season would hurt Legion baseball for good,” said state director Randy Schaub. “We’re so glad to see Minnesota’s strong support for our program.”

 

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Other than in 2020, Minnesota Legion had held a state tournament every year since 1926 and had a string of unbroken regular seasons dating to 1923.

Gopher State Baseball/Minnesota Youth Athletic Association and the Metro Baseball League teamed up to salvage part of last summer’s season by providing some competition with COVID-19 protocols in place. The loosely formed alliance included the formation of a Saint Paul Diamond team, with players largely from SPA, Central and CDH. Still, Brown said not having a postseason last year created a different feeling.

This summer, play is back to normal and the District 3 West Saint Paul Challenger team has emerged as a contender. “So far, we’re pretty balanced,” coach Thompson said about his squad, which was 10-6 overall through June 30. “Our pitchers are throwing strikes and we have players who support them when they’re out there.”

“Our kids are pretty fired up,” added Bobby Thompson, coach of the West Saint Paul Challenger team, which includes players from Henry Sibley and Saint Thomas Academy. “We’re kind of back to normal this year.”

Zach Klemz, who threw a complete game in his first start this year, and Joey Hazzard are two formidable starting pitchers. Both are right-handers and have the stamina to throw a lot of innings. “I’d say they’re both aces,” Thompson said.

Shortstop Jordan Young is a presence hitting at either the third or fourth spot in the order, and Thompson has also gotten a lot out of speedy outfielders Angelo Pacyga and Abe Mogelson. Thompson said that having Pacyga hit in the fourth of fifth spots in the lineup makes him akin to a second leadoff hitter.

This Legion season also features some good intrafamily competition. Rob Thompson, the Hamline Red coach, is the father of Challenger coach Bobby Thompson. West Saint Paul defeated Hamline Red 8-1 on June 18.

The Red, who were 2-6 in the District 4 standings as of July 1, struggled early on. They started out with four losses, but broke the streak with an 11-6 victory over the Purple on June 24 and a 3-2 win over North Saint Paul on June 29.

Coach Rob Thompson was getting some good contributions from Boden Strafelda, who fashioned a great all-state season with SPA and has continued it into the Legion season. Strafelda is equally imposing as either a pitcher or shortstop.

Thompson also likes Judah Thomas in center field, though his time will be limited because of football camp. Third baseman and pitcher Levi Mellin has also been solid, as has left-handed pitcher Josh Meitv.

The Hamline Purple were 1-5 in District 4 play heading into July. Their lone win was a 9-8, nine-inning victory over the Tri-City Red on June 22.

Despite the slow start, coach Smith has seen some encouraging signs for the Purple. One is shortstop Max Weber, who has been a solid double threat at shortstop or as a starting pitcher.

“He throws strikes when he’s out there on the mound,” Smith said about Weber. “And he’s a great fielder who makes big plays.”

Another solid hurler has been Bergen Manternach. “He’s probably been our most consistent pitcher, either starting or out of the bullpen,” Smith said.

Kevin Odlaug has been a good first or third baseman for the Purple, but Smith has recently found another job for the youngster—relief pitcher. “He’s just a competitor,” Smith said. “He’s stepped right into a pitching role for us.”

The regular Legion baseball season runs through mid-July. The eight-team Sub-State 7 playoffs will be held the week of July 19 in North Saint Paul, with the Division I state tournament running from July 29-August 1 in Saint Cloud.

— Bill Wagner

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