By John Sherman
Ham Lake’s American Legion baseball team got hot at the right time and finished second in the state tournament to earn a berth in the Central Plains Regional in Dickinson, North Dakota.
The first games in Dickinson were scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 2, and the championship game is set for Sunday, Aug. 6, with the winner advancing to the American Legion World Series.
Ham Lake didn’t look like a regional contender earlier this season. The Bengals entered the state tourney with a modest 16-13-1 record, but the players’ faith in themselves was never in doubt.
They earned a berth in the regionals by taking down Tri-City Red 4-1 in the winners’ bracket final July 30 at St. Paul’s CHS Field, then in the rematch in the championship game on July 31, Tri-City Red responded by caging the Bengals 6-3.
Prior to the championship round, Ham Lake had defeated the Rochester Patriots 9-0, the Moorhead Blues 14-5 and Eden Prairie 10-2. With those dominant performances, the Bengals were the last undefeated team in the state bracket.
The state tournament was all about peaking at the right time.
“We have four ace pitchers on the team,” said Sam Riola, who aced the first game with seven innings of two-hit ball in the 9-0 win over Rochester. “And we’ve back the pitchers up with a bunch of runs. After the regular season ended, we knew we had more in the tank.”
“Our defense is unreal, and that helps the pitchers out,” said Bengal infielder Mike Gottschalk. “We’re keeping a positive attitude, taking it one game at a time. Coming into the state tournament, we knew we had it in us.”
Ham Lake head coach John Webb said he looks at Legion ball as a way to develop players and synergy for the Blaine High School baseball team.
“That’s what summer baseball is about,” he said. “This is a team that has improved throughout the summer.”
In addition to Riola and Gottschalk, players on the Ham Lake roster include: Jon Coello, Reid Conlee, Jake Dorff, Nick Grote, Luke Johnson, Andrew Jorgenson, Mitch Matuska, Logan McDonald, Conner Melton, Joey Messier, Seth Miller, Spencer Smith, Charles Studer and Alex Winslow.