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Knocking on the door

Grant Toivonen gets low to scoop up a ground ball against Bemidji last Wednesday in the Section 8AAA tournament in St. Cloud. Toivonen and the Cardinals hope to compete for a section title again next season. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

The feeling around the Alexandria baseball team after a loss to Brainerd in the 8AAA title game last Wednesday was different from years past.

The Cardinals have made the section championship three out of the last six seasons and the disappointment the last two times they were there was palpable in 2009 and 2011. In both those years, Alexandria had advanced through the winner’s bracket only to lose twice in the title game and see a spot at the state tournament disappear.

The Cardinals were disappointed after losing to the Warriors 13-4 last week, certainly. But they could also take some pride in battling through the losers’ bracket and winning four straight games against a field full of teams with winning records this season.

“I think today is different from the last two times we were here,” head coach Russ Hinrichs said. “I’m really proud of this group. To come all the way back, play four elimination games in a row and win them all against good teams – that’s a great accomplishment.”

The Cardinals simply ran into a good team that was rested and ready. The Warriors had played just three games the whole tournament up to that point, compared to three for Alexandria in a span of little more than 30 hours. That’s the challenge of fighting through the losers’ bracket.

“I just think it was a lot of pressure,” Hinrichs said. “You’re talking about playing 28 innings of baseball over two days. It is just pressure too, you can’t make any mistakes. I thought our pitchers did a great job, but you’re going to get to that breaking point where you make one mistake that you just can’t get back. There’s a reason that it’s hard once you lose, but the kids did a great job and I’m very proud of them.”

Brainerd eventually took advantage of some extra outs to open the game up. It was tied 3-3 heading to the bottom of the third when the Warriors scored four to take a lead they never relinquished.

That inning featured a couple bad breaks that were joined by some Cardinal miscues. A hard-hit ball in the hole at short went for a single to start the inning before an in-between hop on a ground ball to third skipped under the glove of Travis Krueger. A misplayed bunt followed to load the bases. Brainerd’s Logan Jones and Conor Gessell both followed that up with two-run singles.

“It’s a tough thing to swallow that we didn’t make it, but you got to give respect to Brainerd,” senior shortstop Zach Peterson said. “They’re a really good team. I just wish things would have gone our way.”

A couple hours earlier, things did go Alexandria’s way in an 8-3 win over Bemidji. The Cardinals used their own big inning in that game as they broke a scoreless tie by scoring seven in the fourth frame.

Junior Parker Revering delivered the biggest blow that inning. He was fresh off a three-run home run against St. Michael-Albertville the day before that gave the Cardinals a lead they never relinquished.

Revering took it a step further against the Lumberjacks. He came up in a 3-0 game with the bases loaded and turned on the second pitch he saw from Bemidji’s Collin Rutledge for a grand slam that gave his team all the momentum.

“It gave me a little more confidence,” Revering said. “I wasn’t doing so good at the plate the last few weeks. Both home runs boosted my confidence a little bit. I went 0-for-4 the last game, but still hit the ball hard a couple times, just right at people.”

Revering is part of a group of juniors who will be asked to take the reins next year and lead a program that is embracing high expectations after 36 wins over the last two years.

“I see it even in the younger kids that are doing good too,” Revering said. “I saw it last year and thought we should be just as good this year. I think we can put another good season together [next year].”

It won’t necessarily be easy as the Cardinals lose a group of eight seniors. Those guys played all over the field, including at the top of the rotation, behind the plate and key positions in the outfield and infield.

“Our seniors should be very proud,” Hinrichs said. “What they’ve accomplished, bringing this program two conference titles, is a great deal. We’ll just keep working and we wish the seniors luck. They’re going to go on and do big things.”

That group also helped set a foundation for what this team hopes will be the norm in coming years. Hinrichs has said in the past that the goal is to establish a program that competes near the top of the conference and section every season.

After a 19-win spring, back-to-back league titles and three section championship appearances in three years, the Cardinals believe they are getting there. Now they hope to take one more step in the future.

“Absolutely, that’s where we should be,” Hinrichs said when asked of expecting 15-20-win seasons. “It’s a great accomplishment and as I said the last time we were here, this program will just keep knocking on the door and eventually it’s going to knock it down and they’re going to get to a state tournament. I know they will.”

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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