History revisited: Rick Banke's 1-0 shutouts in same day send Alexandria to its first-ever state tournament
On June 5, 1972, the Alexandria baseball program qualified for its first-ever state tournament. Rick Banke threw a shutout in both the semifinals and finals on that day. Now five decades later, Banke and Bob Close, who knocked in the game-winning run in the Region 6 finals, look back on the team's trip to the 1972 state tournament.
The Alexandria Cardinals baseball team is fresh off its fifth state tournament appearance in program history, but for the program to break through with its first-ever trip to state, it took a performance five decades ago that would not even be possible today.
June 5, 1972, is a date that will live on in the Alexandria program forever. On that date, Rick Banke pitched not one but two shutouts to win the Region 6 title and gave the Cardinals their first-ever state tournament appearance.
Banke had 12 strikeouts in 14 innings to shut down Moorhead and Little Falls, and he believes that he threw about 180 pitches on the day. Minnesota State High School League rules today limit the number of pitches an athlete can throw in a single day to 105 at the varsity level in an attempt to reduce the risk of arm injuries on pitchers.
Now 50 years later, Banke still looks fondly back on that day. What he is most proud of is the fact that the team made it to the state tournament at Midway Stadium in St. Paul.
“Those are kind of cool things, but at the time, I was thinking, ‘Man, we made it to the state tournament. That's the coolest thing ever.’ I never even thought about the two shutouts in two games. I just thought, ‘My gosh, we’re going to the state tournament.’”
Both of Alexandria’s wins came by a score of 1-0, first against Moorhead and then against Little Falls in the region championship. Matt Steidl scored the lone run in the fourth inning in the win over Moorhead.
“It was just euphoric,” Banke said about winning the region title. “The fans were going nuts.”
Moorhead had just three hits off of Banke, while Little Falls had two.
According to the June 7, 1972, edition of the Lake Region Echo, Alexandria’s lone run in the win over Moorhead came in the top of the fourth inning.
“I was going to throw. My arm felt good”
After throwing the shutout against Moorhead, Banke had no doubt in his mind that he was going to pitch in the region championship game.
“I remember going back to the high school, and he said, ‘I'm going to throw the next game too,” teammate Bob Close said.
After three strikeouts in game one, Banke fanned nine Little Falls batters in the championship.
“I just had no questions,” Banke said. “I was going to throw; my arm felt good. I wasn't nervous about it. I was just going to go out, throw hard and see what happens.”
In the win over Little Falls, Close knocked in the game’s only run with a long fly ball to center field in the third inning that scored catcher Dave Coykendall. Coykendall had been on third base after hitting a triple earlier in the inning.
There was a bit of drama in the seventh inning as Alexandria had two outs when Banke threw a third strike, which Coykendall dropped, but Coykendall made the throw down to first to get the game’s final out and give the Cardinals their first-ever state tournament berth.
“There was a guy on first and all I thought that I could see from what I remember is the ball flying over the first baseman's head into right field and somehow they score and get the game tied up, but I didn't want to go any further than I had gone,” Banke said. “But the catcher threw it right to the first baseman. That was it, we won. I know Moorhead and Little Falls had good teams. I mean, they were ranked highly in the state that year.”
Getting over the hump
What made the victory sweeter was the fact that the Cardinals had come close to making it to the state tournament before and got over the hump in 1972 in what was Wayne Fleischer’s final season as head coach of the team. The Cardinals had won five straight District 22 titles before 1972 and won its sixth straight that year.
“In 1970, we had a great baseball team that didn't make the state, and in 1971 we had a great team that didn’t make it to state,” Close said.
Banke and Close estimated that the break between the Moorhead game and Little Falls game was about two and a half hours.
“In the Moorhead game, I would say I hung on, and in the Little Falls game, I was in a zone, and I was not going to lose that game,” Banke said. “I just felt it.”
Banke’s approach on the mound was simple, throw it hard in the right spot in the strike zone.
“I'm not bragging by saying this, but I could pretty much put it anywhere I wanted,” Banke said. “I had pretty incredible control for a pretty decent fastball. If I threw a curve, it was just to change up the speed slightly. It didn't curve much. I think one of those articles says that in the second game, Banke found his curveball. Well, it might have curved from half an inch to an inch, but that'd be about it.”
Banke settled on a fastball that was working for him and did not deviate from the plan.
“He threw probably 90% fastballs,” Close said. “They knew what was coming, and they still couldn't get it.”
Banke was named the team MVP for the season and had a 10-2 record on the mound and a 1.22 ERA. He had 103 strikeouts in 86 innings pitched. He also was named to the all-state team and the All-West Central Conference team with Rob Thompson.
Banke’s senior year was the only year that he pitched for the Cardinals.
“I know I pitched one year in VFW and maybe a little bit in Legion, but not in high school until my senior year,” Banke said. “As I recall (before the season started), we were in the gym, I was talking to the coach and we were talking about who's going to pitch, and I said, ‘Well, I'll pitch.’”
Coming into the region tournament, the Cardinals felt like they were the underdogs with programs like Moorhead, who had beaten them 15-5 in the regular season. Moorhead was ranked 13th in the preseason rankings, while Little Falls was seventh, and Alexandria was unranked.
A booklet published by the Minnesota High School Baseball Coaches Association before the start of the 1972 season had this to say about the team:
“In District 22, Alexandria is looking for the “long year,” according to coach Wayne Fleischer, but much of that can be taken lightly. Melrose and Browerville are the likely heir apartments for the crown if Alexandria chooses to abdicate…Alexandria will have Rick Banke and Bob Smilanich cementing their lineup in hopes of retaining their hold on district honors. The Cards do have eight lettermen back.”
Perseverance pays off
Alexandria started things off in 1972 with a 3-4 record through the month of April. But things picked up as Alexandria went 8-1 in May before the regional matchups against Moorhead and Little Falls.
“We just didn't really believe that we couldn't do anything even though nobody expected us to do anything,” Banke said. “I don't ever remember thinking we don't have a very good team or we're not going to do this or that. We just went out there and played hard and whatever happens, right? We just went out and gave it 100 percent.”
Banke said that the team’s drive and passion, especially Close’s, drove them to success.
“They probably had to buy extra washing machines at the school because this guy (Close) was just dirt from head to toe every game,” Banke said. “He slid at first, dove for stuff and I mean he got clouds of dust everywhere.”
Looking back on it now, Banke thinks they were considered to be the fourth-best team in the region semifinals, behind the other three teams (Breckenridge, Little Falls and Moorhead).
“I didn’t go in there thinking that we didn’t have a chance,” Banke said. “I just went in there, and after the first win, I felt like we had a really good chance to win the region.”
With strong pitching and defense, the Cardinals pushed through to the state tournament.
“It was our day; let’s just put it that way,” Banke said. “It was just meant to be.”
In the nine games they played in the month of May, the Cardinals gave up more than four runs in a game just once, which was a 14-6 win over Fergus Falls on May 15.
In the field defensively, Mark Lundgren was named the team's “best glove” award winner with a 1.000 fielding percentage. Mark Hvezda was named the team’s most improved player while Matt Steidl was the batting champion and Close struck out the least with just 10 strikeouts on the year.
At the state tournament, Alexandria lost its opening-round game against Anoka 4-1 on June 14 and was eliminated from the tournament with a 2-1 loss to Luverne on June 15, 2022. Alexandria finished the season with a 13-7 overall record.
No matter the result at the state tournament, this Cardinals team had already established their legacy by making it there.
“They still talk about it to this day,” Rick’s wife, Jan, said.
“I'm amazed at all the athletes I know that are two to five years younger than us,” Close said. “They were these kids in like junior high, and they remember that day.”
Banke said it felt like what they had accomplished on June 5, 1972, was a big thing for the program.
“The fact that it was the first-ever, the fact that we went to the state when we probably weren't expected to and then the fact that you know some crazy guy threw 14 innings, you throw it all together, it was a pretty big deal,” Banke said.
Banke said to this day, he’ll hear people bring up the 1972 team whenever the Alexandria program is a contender to make it to the state tournament, like this year when the team had its best-ever finish at state by taking third place in the Class 3A tournament.
50 years removed from their state tournament appearance, Banke and Close both have scrapbooks of their high school days that commemorate what that team accomplished.