Post 46 puts up valiant fight at Legion AA state tourney
Some might have wondered if the American Legion Post 46 baseball team truly deserved entry into last weekend’s AA State Tournament after an 8-13 regular season.
But the boys showed the same mettle they had displayed through the final weeks of the season and their 3-0 regional run, once they got to Kewaunee County.
After getting routed 10-1 by Holmen in Friday’s opener, they bounced back with an 8-4 win over their hosts and played an extremely close elimination game with River Falls before losing 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“Overall it was a great experience for the kids and for myself,” Merrill manager John Annis said. “The kids played hard all weekend. They got down on themselves. They just fell a little short.
“I’m extremely proud of the way the kids played. They battled back from the ups and downs we had this season.”
Saturday’s game with Kewaunee County was do-or-die, but you wouldn’t have guessed it with the determined manner the Merrill boys exuded.
They immediately took charge with pairs of runs in the first two innings giving them a 4-0 lead. Consecutive one-out singles by Ty Grunenwald, Alex Klug (RBI), Ben Anderson (RBI), Garrett Pagel and David Pophal gave Post 46 a 2-0 lead and loaded the bases. But K.C.’s Caleb Willems avoided further damage with a strike-out and fly ball.
Alex Cordova singled and stole second to lead off the second inning, then scored on Grunenwald’s double. Anderson hit him home for the 4-0 margin.
“I really liked the way the kids bounced back from that 10-1 loss,” Annis said. “It’s easy to lose confidence and not play well, especially when that happens at the state tournament. But everyone was intense and talking; everyone was focused.”
As had happened several times this season, Post 46 gave a down team new life and that pattern re-emerged here. Kewaunee County scored one in the third and three in the fourth to tie it up, and threatened to end Merrill’s run early with a walk, error, single start to the fifth that drove Merrill pitcher Brad Juhlke-the top hurler at regional-from the contest.
“They started to bounce back, the same story as it was for the rest of the season,” Annis said. “They hit it where we weren’t. Two of their hits, you couldn’t throw it to a better place.”
Cordova took over and quickly got the lead runner out on a grounder to Grunenwald at short. Kewaunee then shot themselves directly in the foot with a missed sign on a suicided squeeze bunt.
“We ended up picking off the guy at home as well as the guy coming from second, trying to advance to third,” Annis said. “That was a huge, huge momentum turner there.”
Merrill got out of the next inning unscathed, too, then dialed up the heat with a four-run sixth.
Tom Zuelsdorff and Cole Gustke kicked it off with one-out singles.
“Our #8 and #9 hitters came up huge for us there,” Annis said.
Grunenwald walked to load the bases, and Klug doubled them clear. Anderson backed it up with an RBI double for the 8-4 lead with one inning to go.
“The kids had it in their heads that they weren’t going to lose,” Annis said. “Our 2-3-4 hitters were 8-for-11 with 8 RBI’s. That was huge.”
#4 Anderson (4-4, 2B, 3 RBI), #3 Klug (2-4, 2B, 4 RBI) and #2 Grunenwald (2-3, 3 R) led that charge. Five others had hits for a 13-hit, one-walk attack.
Cordova (1 H, 1 W, 3 K, 0 R in 3 I) struck out the side to secure the win. Juhlke (8 H, 4 W, 4 K, 4 R, 4 ER in 4 I) started.
“We played very well defensively behind them,” Annis said.
Post 46 took early control of the River Falls contest, too, scoring twice in the first and once in the third for a 3-0 difference.
Grunenwald walked and advance on a passed ball before getting home on Anderson’s hit in the first. Pagel walked and Anderson scored on an error.
In the third, Pagel reached on an error, got to second on a passed ball, to third on a Pophal grounder and home on a wild pitch. Hintze walked with two out, but was gunned down at the plate when sent home on Zuelsdorff’s double.
“The kids came again ready to play,” Annis said. “We had a chance to put more runs on the board in the second inning, but we couldn’t find any green.
“But after the third inning, we didn’t have any hits and we only had three baserunners with two walks and an error. It’s tough to win a game at state with only four hits.”
With two outs in the second, Gustke singled, Cordova doubled and Grunenwald walked, but the third-baseman closed it out with an unassisted play on a grounder.
It took River Falls until the sixth inning to break through on the scoreboard, with a two-out, two-run single to cut the margin to 3-2.
Two walks in the seventh gave Merrill a chance for more, but a double-play ball ended it.
Post 121 opened the bottom of the seventh with a single and used up an out pushing the runner to second. An unassisted play at first by Klug put Post 46 within an out of victory, but a walk and two-run Johnathan Krueger double to the gap in left-center turned the tables and gave the win to River Falls.
“Alex (Cordova) threw the ball well,” Annis said. “They just hit him.
“That was not the way we wanted to end the season, but the kids never gave up.”
Cordova (3 H, 1 W, 2 R, 2 ER in 1 I) relieved Brian Stockowitz (6 H, 4 W, 2 K, 2 R, 2 ER in 5-1/3 I) in the sixth.
Grunenwald earned 3 walks.
Holmen, not-so-sweet Holmen
Merrill had hung within a 6-5 game of Holmen in the second round of the Merrill Invite back on July 12. Post 284 had rallied late to take it to extras and won it in the eighth.
But after Post 46 grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning on Friday, Holmen had a rapid response. It scored three in the bottom of the frame before Post 46 pitcher Coleton Bloch got out of a bases-loaded jam with a ground ball out.
“We got up one-nothing-we were the away team-and I think the excitement got to the kids,” Annis said. “They got overexcited.
“They got three runs on us and never looked back. We made a few errors that led to their three runs in the first inning.
“It doesn’t help that we had three hits in the first inning and not another hit until the sixth inning. Again, at the state tournament, it’s tough to win with only four hits.”
In the meantime, Holmen reached double digits in hits.
“They hit the ball where we weren’t,” Annis said.
Bloch (6 H, 3 W, 2 K, 5 R, 2 ER in 4 I) took the loss and Stockowitz (4 H, 4 W, 5 R, 5 ER in 2 I) closed it out.
As of mid-day Tuesday, only Beaver Dam and River Falls were alive, with Beaver Dam in the driver’s seat with no losses.
But Merrill’s season was over.
“We had our ups and downs,” Annis said. “Overall it was a good season.
“The kids made it interesting. With the amount of one-run losses (five), it’d been easy to throw in the towel. You could tell they wanted to go to state and do well there. I can’t complain at all about how they did this weekend or the last two-and-a-half weeks of the season. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.”