State champions: East Ridge wins state for the first time in program history
Joe Trollen was camped underneath a pop fly in center field at Target Field on Thursday, June 20.
And he waited.
It seemed like it took an eternity for the ball to come down from the dark sky and land in his glove to record the final out of the game.
Once it was caught, history was made on the field as East Ridge defeated New Prague 7-2 and won its first ever state tournament in baseball history.
The players on the bench and the infield players all ran just in front of the pitcher's mound to form a dogpile. The outfielders were the last ones to jump on that pile and the celebration began as the Raptors were state champions.
They exchanged smiles, high-fives, hugs and tears between players and coaches because each person on that team knew how much this title meant for this team and the East Ridge community.
"You go into the Perch at East Ridge, you're going to see the baseball banner and you're going to see 2019 written on it," said Anthony LaValle. "You can never take that down."
It's a permanent message that will stick with these players and coaches for the rest of their lives. The players and coaches all agreed that the best part of this run was that it took a team effort to win the state title.
Once two and a half hours went by and the rain subsided on the field, the Target Field grounds crew was able to remove the trap and get everything ready for the last two games of the night. The first was the Class AAA game, which ended quicker than expected and allowed East Ridge to start its game around 8:30 p.m.
The starting pitching role was given to senior Ryan Thelen and he was excited about the opportunity.
"It was nerve wracking in warmups, but then you get used to it," Thelen said.
Thelen got used to it early and often in the game. He started the first inning with a one, two, three inning.
He had help from his defense in the second inning to pitch out of a jam, but the third inning was the first time New Prague scored. The Trojan runner took off for second on a steal attempt, but Max Moris' throw went into center field.
This allowed the runner to run for third and Trollen threw the ball short to third base, which put the ball out of the play and allowed the runner to score.
After the third inning, Thelen was locked in and recorded six outs on six batters. The only problem was that New Prague's starting pitcher, Luke Tupy, was also having a strong start to the game.
He was actually perfect.
Tupy was pitching a perfect game through the first four innings including 10 strikeouts. LaValle and Trollen both said that it was hard seeing the ball come out of his hand. He was a left-handed pitcher and his delivery came over the top, which made it hard for the Raptor hitters to see the ball until it was too late.
"They don't quit," said East Ridge head coach Brian Sprout. "And it's not just a few, it's the entire team. They just didn't quit in any game we played in the last month. They just kept playing baseball."
That mentality translated to the one thing the Raptors have always done over the section and state tournament. They always come back from a deficit.
Whether it was scoring six runs in the sixth inning in the section finals or recording six runs in the seventh inning against Mounds View in the opening state round, East Ridge never backs down from an opponent.
Same thing tonight.
The Raptors were trailing by a run and was facing a pitcher in the middle of a perfect game. In the fifth inning, the streak snapped and it started with Trollen coming up with one out. He ripped a double and started screaming towards the East Ridge dugout to get the players fired up.
That scream worked because Tanner Stafne and Carter Seidl each recorded hits, which allowed Trollen to tie the game at 1-1. Then, Weber Neels and LaValle each hit a double. Neels knocked in Stafne and Seidl, while LaValle brought Neels home to make it a 4-1 lead for the Raptors.
"We feed off of each other and our energy," Trollen said. "It showed in the fifth because one hit led to another and eventually we took a large lead."
Ben North knocked in LaValle as New Prague's first baseman couldn't make the catch in the dirt. At the end of five innings, East Ridge took the lead 5-1 and that fired up Thelen on the mound.
He gave up one more run in the sixth, but shut the Trojans out in the seventh to maintain and earn the win. East Ridge also added two more runs in the sixth inning as LaValle singled to score Seidl and Neels.
"To have that much trust in a pitcher just puts everyone else on the field in such a relaxed state," Neels said.
Thelen pitched a complete game allowing two runs on six hits with one walk and striking out five batters. He added that the win was the greatest win in Thelen's career not just because it was the state title game, but he was able to earn this title with players he's grown up with all his life.
This Raptors team will look different next season as 12 seniors graduate from this team. Each player and coach knew how important it was to take advantage of this season and leave everything on the field each game.
That mentality goes back to a meeting that occurred about two months ago. Sprout said it was a handful of underclassmen and upperclassmen that brought this team together and made it a requirement to never give up and battle until the final out.
"About two months ago, they came together as a team ... and they defined themselves," Sprout said. "I haven't done much since then. We practiced hard and they wouldn't quit and that's what defines us."
Out of the 10 players that started tonight, including the designated hitter, seven of those players have played their last high school baseball game. There are plenty of sophomores and juniors as well as one freshman, Neels, that will be returning next year and the expectation is already set.
"Just keep grinding next year," Neels said. "I had a lot of fun with the boys this season and I'm going to miss all the seniors, but the expectation is set for next year."
For these seniors, this win means more than words can describe because of the history they've gone through in their baseball career. Many of these seniors have been playing baseball with each other since childhood ages in youth leagues and traveling leagues.
That grew into high school baseball and they've been a part of some talented East Ridge teams, but none were able to reach state and win state until the 2019 season.
"It means everything for the seniors to win state since we're going away," Trollen said. "We hope this gives the underclassmen confidence going into next year."
After receiving the individual medals, the entire East Ridge team ran over to accept the state title trophy. The Raptors took a moment together behind home plate to celebrate the victory, but they quickly took off for the student section.
There were many pictures taken and smiles shared between the players and the student section and fans that made the trip to Target Field on Thursday night.
It was one team that accepted the trophy and one team that celebrated with the East Ridge fans because it took one entire team to win the state title.
That team was East Ridge.
Just simply put, one word can describe this season, this postseason and the state title victory.