Centennial’s VFW baseball team, shaking off a mediocre start to the season, was one win away from a state trip Monday.
The Cougars picked three District 7 wins, two of them with walk-off hits, over the weekend, while losing to the eventual champion.
With a chance to grab a state berth, the Cougars ran out of gas and lost to Forest Lake 10-0 on Monday. The tournament was held in Osseo.
“This team has some magic in them,” said coach Michael Diggins, after the Cougars scored five runs in the seventh to beat Champlin Park 8-7 in an elimination game Sunday.
Centennial, which was 6-7 early in the season before hitting its stride, finished 17-11, placing third among 23 teams in the district.
“I am guessing now, but we have to be one of the first teams ever to finish in the top three of the districts for four straight years,” Diggins noted. Centennial was district champion in 2016 and 2017, capturing the state title in 2016, and now has placed third in 2018 and 2019.
Mounds View and Forest Lake finished 1-2, both advancing to state. Under a new rule this year, District 7 gets to send two teams to state, rather than just the champion, because it’s the biggest district with the most success at state.
The Cougars beat Champlin Park 6-5 on Friday with Hunter Belting pitching the distance. The winning run was a “walk-off” that scored on Ryan Sellner’s squeeze bunt.
On Saturday, the Cougars lost to Mounds View for the fourth time this year, 4-1.
On Sunday, they stayed alive with an 8-3 conquest of Osseo. The key hit was a bases-loaded triple by Zander Streit. Drew Molitor pitched the distance.
Then, facing Champlin Park again, the Cougars were down 5-0 in the second inning and still trailed 7-3 in the last of the seventh.
After Streit led off with a double, Danny Howell belted a home run to make it 7-5. Caden Klebba singled, followed by three straight walks, to Molitor, Belting and Jack Montague. That made it 7-6. Jake Slipka ripped a double to send home the two winning runs.
“Probably the most fun inning I have ever been a part of, and the most rewarding,” said Diggins, whose 2016 team was state champions. “To see our kids fight the way we did when nothing went our way and we were out-played for six and a half innings.”
The main Cougar pitchers were Belting, Howell, Ryan Sellner, Molitor and Slipka. Around the infield are Jordan Newpower, Streit, Montague, and Michael Murray. In the outfield are Logan Lieser, Colin Brandt, Tanyon Gilbert, and Nick Gunderson. Sharing catching duties are Brenden Burgraff, Zach Frank and Klebba.
“The part we lacked at the start (of the season) was the mental aspect of the game and the ability to compete as a unit,” Diggins said, adding that adversity led to someone pouting and the team losing confidence. Gradually the attitude changed, he said, to “Who cares what happened last at-bat, it's time to go back to work.”