Three local Town Ball teams took the field for the first time last week after concerns over COVID-19 delayed, and threatened to cancel, the 2020 season.
And while Braham, North Branch and Rum River met with mixed results to start the year, the feeling in all three dugouts was the same.
“It feels great to get on the field, because it gives us a little normalcy,” Braham manager Jay Sparling said.
The 2020 season had a rocky start for all three teams. North Branch did win its opener, knocking off Quamba 10-5 on Sunday, June 28, but then suffered a 9-0 loss at Forest Lake two nights later.
“We didn’t do a whole lot [to get ready], and it showed,” Nighthawks manager Jim Skroch said. “It was a rough start. We played our first game on Sunday, and when they showed up for the game Tuesday, everyone was sore. We didn’t have access to our field, and there really wasn’t anywhere to hit. So it’s going to take us a few weeks to get ready.”
Rum River opened with a 7-5 loss at Quamba on Saturday, June 27, but rebounded to beat Braham 9-2 in a game played at Rush City on Wednesday, July 1.
“We had a couple of short practices – basically a half hour of batting practice – before we played at Quamba,” Bandits manager Tom Koplitz said. “They had already played a couple of games, and you could tell we weren’t game-ready, that’s for sure.”
The game with Rum River was tied 2-2 until the Bandits took advantage of four walks and two hit batsmen to score five runs in the eighth, then added two runs in the ninth to pull away.
“We had guys who threw strikes in the bullpen, but when you step on the mound for the first time, it can be a little more difficult,” Sparling said. “We’re asking guys who may not have picked up a baseball for a long time to go out there and throw strikes, and that’s difficult.”
Sparling said the Snappers will feature a younger roster than in years past.
“We’re going young this year because we have a lot of high school players who are itching to play,” he said. “Hopefully they see that we have a lot of fun, but I hope that they also see that our older guys are willing to do the work.”
Meanwhile Rum River will feature a roster with a number of familiar faces: Outfielder Kevin Auth and brothers Eric and Mike Koplitz have been on the team for 14 seasons, while six other players have been on the team for eight years or more.
“We’re a veteran team, one of the older teams in our league,” manager Tom Koplitz said. “This [win over Braham] gave us a chance to get everybody into the game, get game at-bats and play defense. It helped that it was a tight game, because that helped raise the intensity and focus as the game went on.”
One of the newcomers to the team is Cody Kielsa, who belted a long home run onto the football press box behind the center field fence at Rush City.
“He played in the Western Canada Baseball League, and he was an All-American in college in both football and baseball,” Koplitz said of Kielsa. “He doesn’t seem to have a primary position, and that will give us a lot of flexibility.
“We used to be pretty thin. Now, if a guy has to work or has to stay home because his wife has to work, we have some flexibility,” Koplitz added.
The previous night North Branch struggled at Forest Lake, managing just six hits against a solid Class B opponent. Skroch said the success of the Nighthawks offense will be the key to the team’s success in 2020.
“Our pitching has traditionally been solid, so it’s always been about scoring runs,” he said. “If we can score runs, we’ll be fine. And that’s 100% about getting in to playing shape.”
All three teams are part of the Eastern Minny League. Rum River and North Branch are joined by Isanti and Chisago Lakes in the Central Division, while Braham is in the North Division with Mora, Quamba and Hinckley.
Because of the late start to the season, all of the Eastern Minny teams will play a compressed schedule to determine seeding for the league tournament, which is scheduled to begin Saturday, Aug. 1.
“We’ll play 10 games in three weeks, and that will be a lot,” Skroch said. “In the first two games I used a lot of pitchers, and that was to keep their arms healthy – and have a lot of pitchers available.”
To make matters harder for Rum River, the Bandits will play their entire schedule on the road.
“We just couldn’t afford to play in Cambridge because of the insurance costs,” Koplitz said. “We have 20 guys, so it will be tough to satisfy everyone with playing time in a nine-game schedule, but our guys are veterans and they understand. We just want to be healthy and ready for the first of August when the tournament starts.”
Because of the limited amount of preparation time, Sparling said the key to victory will be to limit mistakes.
“I think we’ll be in every game until the end, just like we were in this game,” he said. “I think it will come down to which team makes the fewest mistakes, just like in the past. But I think this season that will be even more magnified.”
Isanti played one game before the Fourth of July holiday, beating Osceola 9-2 on Monday, June 29. Starting pitcher Ethan Smith struck out four batters in five innings to earn the win, while Wyatt Soderquist had two hits, two RBIs and two runs scored to lead the offense.
The Redbirds will play three home games in the next seven days, starting with a contest against North Branch on Wednesday, July 8. Two days later Isanti will face Mora, followed by a game against Rum River on Monday, July 13. All three contests are scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.
After taking on the Redbirds on Wednesday, North Branch will play a home-and-home series against Chisago Lakes, playing on the road on Friday, July 10, starting at 7:30 p.m. before hosting the Bulldogs in a 2 p.m. start the next day.
Rum River also will face the Bulldogs this week, traveling to Chisago Lakes on Wednesday, July 8, before taking on Isanti the following Monday. Both of those games will begin at 7:30 p.m.
Braham will have a busy weekend on the road, traveling to Quamba to face the Cubs on Friday, July 10. The following evening the Snappers will play a doubleheader at Hinckley, with the first pitch of the first game set for 5:30 p.m.