The Merrill Rangers may have narrowly qualified for this year’s WBA playoffs, but they pushed a top seed to the limit in Saturday’s opening round game in River Falls.
The Rangers lost a 2-1 contest to the Prescott Pirates, and had a chance to tie the game as late as the ninth inning.
“We played all right,” Merrill manager Shawn Schultz said. “It’s disappointing to lose, always, but we were in the game all the way through. 
“It was a fun game. It was well-pitched and well-played. We just didn’t score enough runs.”
The Rangers had a chance to win right up to the bitter end, Brad Kanitz reaching first base in the top of the ninth, moving up to second on a Garrett Pagel bunt, but stranding there.
“We just couldn’t get him around, but we were in it right to the end,” Schultz said. 
The contest was one of just three opening round games to be decided by a single run in the entire 16-game first round, so Merrill represented well.
The Rangers’ only score came on a solo homer to left field from Chris Grunenwald with one out in the fifth inning. 
“It was a pretty good shot,” Schultz said. “You could tell it was gone right off the bat.”
The Pirates scored single runs in the second and third innings. 
“After that they had a couple of chances with guys in scoring position, but we managed to get out of it in a couple of different ways,” Schultz said. “We just worked our way around it. There was not a lot of hitting or a lot of base-runners by either team.”
Prescott’s Eric Monson kept Merrill off-balance.
“He threw fastball, change,” Schultz said. “He didn’t throw a lot of curve balls, but he was spotting it so we couldn’t hit it off a good part of the bat. Guys would come back to the dugout saying they could see it but they just couldn’t put a good part of the bat on it. It was frustrating.” 
That Merrill was even in the game may have been a surprise to the Pirates.
“Based on the seeding, we were probably 32nd out of 32 teams,” Schultz said. “They won their league over there and were something like 19-5. Other than that we were going in pretty blind. We played them in the playoffs 10 years ago, but since then, nothing.”
Merrill– 000 010 000–1.
Menasha– 011 000 00x–2. 
MP: Shawn Schultz 8 I, 6 H, 3 W, 5 K, 2 R, 0 ER. MH 5 H, 2 W, 9 K; Chris Grunenwald 1-4, HR.

The diamond in River Falls threatened to overshadow the game being played upon it.
“It’s a beautiful field,” Schultz said. “They’ve put 2-1/2 million dollars into it, almost all of it from donations. They lease the land from the city. The high school team, (American) Legion team and adult team will play there. I think they have a 35-and-older team, too. It’s pretty amazing.” 
The complex, complete with a Leinie’s Lodge,  just opened this summer in time for WBA play. 
Prescott defeated the Onalaska Twins 6-2 to advance to the eight-team WBA State Finals at River Falls against the host River Falls Fighting Fish. The Fish handled the Hallie Eagles 21-3 then bested the Eau Claire Bears 12-0.
The Whittlesey Reds beat the Cumberland Islanders 4-1 and the top-seeded Ashland Merchants 7-2 to get there out of Rib Lake. 
The Everest Merchants nearly forced an All-Dairyland League state quarterfinal with Whittlesey after opening with a 10-6 win over the Osceola Braves, but fell 4-2 to the Brill Millers. Ashland defeated the Interwald Woodticks 8-2 in its first game.
The Rib Lake Osprey knocked off the Hayward Hawks 5-3 before losing 6-0 to the LaCrescent Cardinals in Rib Lake. The Wausau River Hawks were bumped 14-2 in the first round by the Spooner Cardinals, who in turn lost 9-2 to the Chaseburg Coon Valley Blues.
The game closed out a 7-9 season for Merrill, who finished tied for fifth in the Dairyland at 5-5. The Rangers did play Saturday without two other Grunenwald brothers, Alex, who returned to school, and Ty, who is recovering from a recent emergency appendectomy.
“I wish we would have played Sunday,” Schultz said. “It would have been nice to win a couple more games this year. By the end of the year, we had a pretty consistent group that played pretty well together. 
“It’s always fun. It never changes.”