Ask a high school athlete about team goals ahead of almost any season and answers tend to have something to do with making a state tournament.
That’s the ultimate destination most competitive kids want to reach because of how unique an opportunity it is. Even really good teams don’t reach that level depending on how sections are set up, and this year’s group of boys in Ashby certainly fit the mold of good teams that were a part of really good section fields.
Ashby joined up with West Central Area to go 5-2 in football this past fall before the season was cut short due to the pandemic. The Arrows’ winter seasons included a 25-5 record in wrestling as part of the WCA-Ashby-Brandon-Evansville program and a 19-1 record in basketball.
Ashby’s baseball team continued right along with that trend and was one of the best Class A programs in Minnesota all spring. The Arrows (24-3) were one of the top-10 ranked teams all year, but their run in the Section 6A tournament came to an end on Thursday with a 6-3 loss to New York Mills. The Eagles (21-2) made a perfect run through the section tournament to secure their eighth trip to the state tournament and second straight after winning Section 6A in 2019.
“Those Mills guys are crazy good,” Ashby catcher Mattson Hoff said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to lose to anyone else. Those guys are crazy good, and all the best to them. (State) is the goal, but this really could have been the state championship. We battled as hard as we could and they just got the better of us.”
Section 6A featured four of the top-10 ranked teams in Class A through the QRF on Minnesota-scores.net in New York Mills (No. 1), Ashby (No. 5), Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg (No. 6) and Upsala-Swanville Area (No. 10).
Ashby beat KMS (19-2) 12-2 in six innings in the first game on Thursday in order to secure its spot in the section championship against New York Mills.
Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg led 2-0 and had the bases loaded in the first inning. Carter Spangler recorded just two outs before Ashby head coach Jared Larson went to Evan Paulson in relief. Paulson got the final out on a pop up and then threw an additional five shutout innings to let his offense take over.
“We needed him to step up, and he definitely did,” Hoff, who caught all 13 innings in the two games, said of Paulson. “We talked through pitches, what guys were looking to hit and stuff like that. We definitely ironed it out and got it figured out.”
Ashby took a 4-2 lead on KMS in the second inning. Carson Spangler had an RBI single, and Torin Olson hammered a two-run double. It was part of a big game for Olson as he homered in the fourth inning to make it a 5-2 game.
The Arrows batted around in the sixth inning to win it with six runs as Brodie Ecker, Mattson Hoff, Carter Spangler and Jaden Norby all drove in runs.
It was a long game in 90-plus degree heat with no wind as Ashby then had to turn around and play the No. 1 ranked team in the state a half an hour later. The Eagles knew that and brought energy early as they scored five runs in the top of the first inning.
“To score five runs like that right away in the section finals is a big deal,” New York Mills catcher Jake Guck said. “They were worn down, and we were pretty fresh. Five runs really takes a lot out of a team coming out like that.”
The Arrows battled back, but they were never quite able to recover. Olson, a steady shortstop for Ashby, started on the mound with the team’s pitching depth being tested through the elimination bracket.
Olson recorded just four outs, but Carter Spangler got a second chance on the mound and made good on it. Spangler allowed his team to get as close as 5-3 after a two-run single by Carson Spangler in the bottom of the fourth inning. Carter allowed just one run in 5 2/3 innings.
“He threw phenomenal,” Larson said. “He just did a tremendous job and had the bulldog mentality. He came back after that rough outing, and I’m proud of him. Really proud of him.”
New York Mills coaches urged their guys ahead of the seventh inning in a two-run game to get one more run. Guck delivered. He pulled a no-doubt home run to left field to lead off the top of the final frame and make for the 6-3 final.
“It felt good because coach said, ‘Let’s get one.’ When you can do it with one swing, that always helps,” Guck said with a smile.
Drey Roberts threw a complete game in the win for the Eagles. Derin Gaudette is New York Mills’ ace, but this team is as good as it is because of having depth on the mound.
“When you can throw your No. 2 guy in the section finals and feel as confident as we do, that’s always nice,” Guck said.
The Eagles feel good about their chances heading to the Class A state tournament after going 4-0 in likely the best section in the state.
“If we can beat these guys and KMS, we should be right in the running for it all,” Guck said. “When you can knock off two of the top teams, it makes you feel really good about taking the next step.”
Ashby players and coaches gathered in left field to talk for about 10 minutes after Thursday’s award ceremony. They shared hugs and a few tears as they walked off the field.
“We’ve been together since we were little kids,” Mattson Hoff said. “It was just fun to play with those seniors one last time. We’re going to miss Miles (Hoff). We’re going to miss Jaden (Norby), but I think as much as they were an asset to our team that we can come back next year and rally back.”
Larson knows this was a special group with a lot of characteristics that don’t come around all that often in small-school programs.
“They make coaching them pretty easy,” Larson said. “There’s not a lot of X’s and O’s out there. It’s more just making sure they get their reps and do things the right way. It doesn’t take much effort on our part. A lot of it is just the talent of the boys and the camaraderie between them.”
The season did not end in a state tournament appearance. That was the goal in multiple seasons in 2020-2021, but it does not take away from what was a standout school year in the history of Ashby athletics.
“I don’t think I would have liked to do it with anybody else,” Mattson Hoff said. “I’m just really grateful. I’m part of something that’s really special.”