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Legion baseball: Post 98 going to state

Eigth-seeded St. Paul Park ran the table at the district tournament, defeating No. 9 seed Forest Lake, No. 1 seed and No. 1 ranked Apple Valley, No. 12 seed Eagan and 14th seeded West St. Paul.2 / 2

The St. Paul Park Legion baseball team's motto for the Third District playoffs was, "Keep going."

And that's just what it did -- all the way to the state tournament.

St. Paul Park, unranked in the latest state poll and the district tournament's No. 8 seed, became unlikely Third District champion on Saturday, July 25 defeating West St. Paul 11-3 in the title game at Burnsville's AliMagnet Park, earning a trip to the American Legion State Tournament, which will begin Thursday, July 30 in New Ulm.

It is the sixth time St. Paul Park has qualified for the American Legion State Tournament. Post 98 last earned a trip to state in 2006. It also qualified for state in 1965, 1966, 1983 and 1997. In '66 the team finished as state runner-up.

This year, St. Paul Park (23-11) ran the table at the district tournament, defeating No. 9 seed Forest Lake, No. 1 seed and No. 1 ranked Apple Valley, No. 12 seed Eagan and 14th seeded West St. Paul.

"It feels great," Park 2009 graduate Jose Gonzalez said. "It's so overwhelming right now, I don't know what to say. Coming off the win over Apple Valley we had a lot of confidence for the next two games. But, we just tried to do what lead us here and it happened for us."

In the championship, holding onto a tenuous 4-3 lead, St. Paul Park scored seven runs in the top of the ninth inning - highlighted by a three-run home run by Park senior Drew Benson -- to blow the game open.

In addition to providing a big hit, Benson also played a large role with his arm.

After taking a 4-1 lead, St. Paul Park's advantage was cut to 4-3 when West St. Paul scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, knocking out starting pitcher Tommy Swanson -- who earned the win, throwing 6 1/3 innings, allowing seven hits and three runs. However, with the bases loaded and one out, Benson, in relief of Swanson, forced West St. Paul into two groundouts -- including a nice play on a sharp ground ball back to the mound - to end the threat. In all, Benson threw 2 2/3 innings, allowing no runs and only one hit.

St. Paul Park head coach Matt Doornink felt Benson's performance on the mound, particularly in the seventh inning, might have saved the day.

"Benson did awesome in relief," Doornink said. "If he pitches like that, he's going to see a bigger role in the state tournament coming out of the bullpen."

Doornink added that Swanson's start was his best performance of the summer.

"If we can get Tommy back to the form he had during the high school season, we'll have a great 1-2 punch with he and Jose (Gonzalez)."

In the ninth inning, up one run, each Post 98 batter had an at-bat. In addition to Benson's three-run shot over the centerfield fence, Park seniors Robby Larsen and Swanson each had two-out RBI singles, and 2009 graduate Ben Bundschu hit a two-run double.

Bundschu was 4-for-6 in the game with four RBI and led the team in batting for the tournament, going 9-for-18. Also, in the championship, Park 2008 graduate Brian Short and Larsen each added three hits.

Doornink said the team's depth has played a huge role in the team's success.

"We have about 10 really good hitters who can hit for power at pretty much any time and we have seven pitchers that are of good quality and are different enough so we can give teams different looks," Doornink said. "We don't have the one or two superstars, but we have a lot of guys who just do what's needed."

The 2009 (and 83rd annual) Minnesota American Legion State Championship Tournament will be hosted by New Ulm. Teams will report on Wednesday, July 29, with tournament play held Thursday, July 30 through Sunday, Aug. 2.

Two teams St. Paul Park defeated at districts -- Apple Valley and Eagan -- will join St. Paul Park at the state tournament.

Last year's state champion was Eastview, which is also out of the Third District, but failed to qualify this year.

St. Paul Park will play at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday against Ninth District champion Fergus Falls in the double-elimination tournament. Win or lose game No. 1, Post 98 will play again on Thursday evening.

The Minnesota state champion and the runner-up will each go on to play in the Central Plains Regional and the Great Lakes Regional tournaments, respectively. The Central Plains Region is made up of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The Great Lakes Region is made up of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The champions from each of the eight regional tournaments - Central Plains, Great Lakes, Northeast, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, Mid-South, West, and Northwest - then advance to the American Legion World Series Tournament, to determine a national champion.

Gonzalez lights-out as team shocks No. 1 Apple Valley

By beating No. 1 Apple Valley in the second round, St. Paul Park's hopes of qualifying for the state tournament got a whole lot better.

Behind the arm its starting pitcher -- Gonzalez -- and a couple big hits, Post 98 defeated No. 1 ranked and top-seeded Apple Valley 2-1 on Thursday, July 23 in the second round district tournament in Apple Valley.

Gonzalez left one of the best lineups in Legion baseball in ruins on Thursday, throwing a complete game, nine-inning shutout performance, allowing five hits and two walks while striking out 12.

"That's about as good as I've seen anyone pitch at this level," Doornink said. "In the six years I've been here that's one of the better performances I've ever seen."

Gonzalez said he tried to stick to his game, stay focused and throw strikes.

"I didn't know I was going to have a day like that, but I went to sleep thinking about Apple Valley, I got up thinking about Apple Valley and it just happened for me. It felt great."

At the plate, Swanson and Larsen each had big hits in the game. Swanson hit a go-ahead solo home run in the fifth to put St. Paul Park ahead 1-0 and Larsen had an RBI single to make it 2-0.

In the top of the ninth, Apple Valley loaded the bases with no outs and hit a sac fly to make it 2-1. However, Gonzalez then held the next two batters to a pop up and a ground out to end the game.

"I was more nervous in that game than in any other game I've ever been a part of," Doornink said. "When I'm playing I have control of over what is going on. Here I have nothing."

With three Third District teams advancing to state, the win over Apple Valley meant St. Paul Park only needed to win two more games without losing two games to qualify for state, which it did, beating Eagan 13-12 in the semifinals and West St. Paul in the championship.

"I think the win over Apple Valley boosted the team morale," Gonzalez said. "I do think we're a better team because of it. We feel like we're the best team out there right now."

Check out the July 29 issue of the Bulletin for additional photos from the Third District Championship