South Ridge makes school history
The script was just waiting for its final chapter when South Ridge and Carlton met in the Section 7A baseball tournament championship round Thursday, June 7, in Superior.
Neither team had ever made it to the state baseball tournament and both were looking at closing that chapter of the playoffs by becoming the first baseball team in their school's history to play into mid-June.
In the end, it was the depth of pitching that finally got the South Ridge Panthers a pair of tight wins and a visit with destiny.
"I couldn't be happier for the communities, the school and the fans who helped us get to the state tournament," South Ridge coach Tyler Olin said. "It was so good to see the hard work these kids have put in pay off."
The Panthers didn't make the road easy on themselves as they had to beat upstart Carlton twice Thursday, June 7, to advance to the state tournament. The Panthers captured game one 5-4 and game two 3-1 to advance to its first state baseball tournament in school history and only its second state tournament in a team sport.
"It was fun to watch our pitchers work the way they did to get the job done," Olin said. "Our entire team was focused the entire day."
For their part, the Bulldogs suffered a 12-0 regular-season loss to the Panthers just a couple of weeks ago before rebounding to beat South Ridge in the playoffs, putting the Panthers in the losers bracket of the double-elimination tournament.
"We tip our hats off to South Ridge and wish them luck at state," Bulldogs head coach Ryan Schmidt said. "They were better than us on Thursday and they earned the trip, but I am so proud of how our guys stepped up at the end of the regular season."
Carlton ended the regular season with a record under .500, but went on a run in the playoffs that ended just short of the state tournament. South Ridge has been knocking on the door to the tournament the last four years. In Superior, the Panthers were able to kick in the door.
South Ridge used the same recipe for success in both games by scoring early and then riding the strong arms of their pitching staff to back-to-back wins. In the opening game, the Panthers pushed four of their five runs across the plate in the first inning and in game two, they scored all three of their runs in the opening frame.
"In the first game, we had several errors in the first inning and spotted them four runs and it was just too much of a hole to dig out of," Schmidt said. "The second game we played better, but gave up three runs in the first inning, but it was good hitting by South Ridge that got us this time."
A huge key for the Panthers on the day turned out to be the pitching performance of Riley Kinsley as the sophomore pitched 6 1/3 innings by throwing 115 pitches and allowing the Panthers the ability to have most of their pitchers still available for the second game that night.
"Riley's performance blew me away," Olin said. "He blew away my expectations. We couldn't expect anything more and he really stepped up in the moment."
The Panthers entered the final two games knowing they would not be able to use their pitching ace Nick Carlson, and instead would need to rely on their pitching depth to get them through to the state tournament.
Kinsley did his part in the first game, but the end of the game saw the Panthers leaning on eighth-grader Jackson Bennett, who started with a pair of runners on base and needing to get the last two outs to extend the South Ridge season. Bennett eventually faced a bases-loaded situation after recording one out and giving up a hit, but finally got out of the inning with a strikeout.
"I was more confident then you might expect," Olin said about having an eighth-grader in such a tough situation. "I had all the confidence in the world that Jackson could do it, and he did."
Following the opening-game win, the Panthers appeared to have the momentum and their pitching lined up for game two.
Game two saw the Bulldogs throw freshman Kristian Herman and the Panthers throw sophomore Mason Lane. After giving up three runs in the first inning, Herman settled in and gave up a total of just six hits. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, Lane was near perfect in allowing only five hits and one earned run in seven innings of work.
"Mason threw strikes and mixed speeds," Olin said. "He's more of a reliever for us and rarely throws over 50 or 60 pitches, so for him to go all seven innings and throw 94 pitches exceeded our expectations."
Connor Bushbaum and Logan Young had two hits in the second game for the Panthers with Bushbaum adding an RBI. Lane had one hit and two RBIs in aiding his own cause at the plate. South Ridge got a pair of hits from Kaden Crane with the lone RBI coming from Austin Parker in the fourth inning.
As for Carlton's pitching, Ryan Gray in the first game and Herman in the second game were solid and pitched complete games only to come out on the short end on the scoreboard.
"Both of our pitchers did everything we needed them to do," Schmidt said.
Perhaps the most difficult pill to swallow for the Bulldogs is they had chances to go to the state tournament, but could not find enough offense to get them the win.
"It's hard to be basically one swing away from a state tournament," Schmidt said. "I'm so proud of our seniors — Jackson Mickle, Chase Parker and Leif Herman — for stepping up and leading this young team when no one gave us a chance going into the playoffs and also for setting us up for the future."
Following the win, the Panthers received the No. 3 seed in the Class A state tournament, which begins Thursday, June 14, in Chaska. The Panthers are scheduled to take on Rushford-Peterson in the final game of the day at 5:30 p.m.
"We haven't changed anything in getting ready for the state tournament," Olin said. "We are just getting as many reps as we can in practice and we are worrying about our own team and not what other teams might do.
"We just want to control our own situation and the best way to do that is practice," he said.