Royals secure first section title, state berth after championship victory over Buffalo
by Jake Andersen
Moments after winning their first section title in school history on June 6, it’s safe to say not much could top what they just accomplished as the No. 7 seed in the Section 8-4A tournament.
For Rogers’ eight seniors, that included graduation later that night.
“It’s going to be close. That’s a tough one, but it might honestly,” senior captain Christian Meyer said when asked if graduation could be the second best thing to happen to him in one day. “It’s just so exciting to get this dub and now go graduate. I mean, it’s an amazing day, just incredible.”
Fellow senior captain Reed Olson didn’t even hesitate when asked the same question.
“This tops graduation. … There’s no way anything can top this right now,” he said.
And how could it not?
Coming in as major underdogs in a deep Section 8-4A field that included top-10 ranked teams in St. Michael-Albertville and Elk River, as well as .500 or better teams in Moorhead, Buffalo, Maple Grove and Brainerd, the Royals, who came into the tourney with a 7-13 record, completed their Cinderella run with a 6-3 win over the Bison in the section championship at Cold Spring Baseball Park, capping a perfect 4-0 section tournament that saw them take down No. 2 Elk River and No. 3 Moorhead in the first two rounds before upending No. 4 Buffalo in the semis and championship.
The Royals (11-13) used a four-run fifth inning to break the championship game open, while junior ace Garrett McLaughlin took care of the rest, getting out of a jam in the sixth and then pitching a one-two-three seventh to lead the program to not only their first section title, but their first state tournament berth.
“It was definitely a relief off my shoulders, just to know we’re finally here,” Garrett McLauglin said about recording the final out in the seventh inning, leading to a championship celebration near the mound. “I mean, everyone knew all along we were capable of doing it, but it was just finally getting done. And we did that and it was awesome.”
The fifth inning ended up being the back breaker for the Bison (16-9), who scored the first run of the game on a two-out RBI single by Ethan Hansen in the fourth, only to see the Royals respond with a run of their own on an RBI double by Aaron Schmidt in the bottom half of the inning and then carry the momentum into the next inning to score four runs and take a comfortable 5-1 lead.
Buffalo starting pitcher Noah Christenson recorded the first out of the fifth on a flyout by Brandon Welch, but then was relieved by Ethan Hansen — who gave up two runs in eight innings against Rogers in a 2-1 semifinals loss on June 1 — after Easton Miller reached on an error by shortstop Calvin James. The Royals took advantage of Hansen’s lack of command right away, with Reed Olson drawing a walk to start his day.
From there, Meyer got ahead in the count and squeaked an RBI, go-ahead single through the hole to right field, advancing Reed from first to third. Senior captain Gavin McLaughlin followed up with an infield RBI single before Carter VanEngen hit a two-run, game-winning single to right field after Meyer and Gav. McLauglin advanced into scoring position on a wild pitch. Hansen proceeded to get the next two batters out to end the inning, but the four-run inning ultimately proved too difficult to overcome.
Royals head coach Brian Harapat credited Schmidt’s deep RBI double to left field in the fourth inning for getting the bats going, delivering the clutch hit they needed after failing to score in each of the first three innings with runners in scoring position, which included a one-out, bases-loaded threat in the first that ended with Welch being thrown out at the plate after tagging up from third on a flyout by Meyer.
“The hit that’s still sticking out in my mind that got everything going was Aaron Schmidt’s. He’s had a rough year. … But he’s one of those guys that once he gets that bat going, he can mash the ball,” Harapat said, noting he was an All-Conference honorable mention player and .313 hitter last year but has seen his average fall to around .160 this year. “So when I saw him barrel that one up and get it going, that was the turning point to me in the game. … We all love Aaron and we know what he is capable of. So to be like ‘Hey, Aaron broke through, we are all going now’ (was huge). He’s kind of the guy that we were waiting for to come through with a big hit because we knew he would at some point, and fittingly, he picked the last game of the section tournament to deliver the biggest hit of his high school career.”
Once Rogers put up four runs in the fifth, they liked their chances with Garrett McLaughlin back on the mound for the final two innings. That being said, Buffalo gave the normally lights-out starter some trouble in the sixth.
After getting the first batter to ground out, McLaughlin gave up a one-out single down the left field line to Kai Brisk before striking out Hansen, albeit allowing him to reach base on a wild pitch. McLaughlin then loaded the bases with a walk, leading to an RBI single by Nathan Buscher.
With a 5-2 lead and the go-ahead run at the plate, McLaughlin buckled down to strike out Adam Braun. He allowed one more run on an error by shortstop Easton Miller, but got Cole LaPlante to ground out to limit the damage to two. Rogers added an insurance run on an error in the bottom half of the sixth and then Harapat sent his ace back out for the seventh, where McLaughlin sent down the Bison’s top-three hitters with a strikeout, groundout and groundout to close out the championship win and avoid a Game 2, as the Bison needed to beat Rogers twice to win the championship in the double-elimination tourney.
McLaughlin allowed only two earned runs on five hits and a walk, while striking out eight. He improved to 4-4 on the season and now holds a 1.72 ERA in 57 innings pitched, giving up no more than four runs in a game this season. Buffalo was the only team to score four runs on him, going back to McLaughlin’s first start of the season on April 5.
“We have so much confidence when he’s on the mound. Going into today, we were just thinking to ourselves that we just need to hit because when he’s on the mound, there’s not much coming through,” Olson said. “(Buffalo) proved they could hit off him, which is more than any other team could this year, and I think that just shows how much more mature he is than last year. Just to show he can get out of those situations like that (in the sixth) with ease. He walked off and didn’t let it bother him at all and came back next inning, one-two-three. So impressive.”
The Royals produced 10 hits in a six-run performance, with Meyer recording a team-high three hits in four at-bats to go along with two runs and an RBI. Everyone in the lineup reached base at least once in the game, as Rogers drew five walks — including two significant walks by Olson that led to run-producing innings in the fifth and sixth.
It was another encouraging offensive performance by the Royals, who’ve had their offensive struggles this season, but have flashed their potential throughout the tournament, including in an 8-1 win over Elk River in the first round. They’ve also shown off their bread and butter — pitching and defense — allowing only five runs in four section wins. They defeated Moorhead 1-0 on May 30 and Buffalo 2-1 on June 1.
“Everybody was hitting today. Everybody can hit one through nine,” Meyer said. “You got guys at the bottom of the order that haven’t had good years, but have hit well in the past. So just to have them show up in the playoffs and come through big for us, is just amazing.”
Beyond the clutch at-bats and stellar pitching, Garrett McLaughlin said their championship run simply came down to believing they could do it, knowing they were a better than their regular season record may suggest.
“Just Rogers baseball and believing. We knew we could do it. We came out at the beginning of the season and said ‘This team is different — we feel it,’” said McLaughlin, whose team took six one-run losses during a difficult regular season. “Everyone wants to win and it finally came out.”
The Royals also embraced being underdogs and saw everyone rise to the occasion as a result. They even had six All-Section players, including Garrett McLaughlin, Jonah Maurer, Meyer, Olson, Welch and VanEngen.
“We all stepped (up) and it just makes it all the more sweeter,” Olson said.
And with their first state tournament on the horizon — the first round set for June 14 at CHS Field — Rogers knows they’ll be underdogs once again and they don’t mind one bit.
“We want to be the underdog again because the pressure is on them now. If we’re the underdog, they are the only ones with something to prove and I think we feed off that,” Olson said. “Nobody thinks we can do it, but I don’t think there’s a hotter team right now, so why not us.”
No matter how things finish out, though, they realize the significance of just getting to this point and the bar they’ve set for the program moving forward.
“Rogers baseball wasn’t always necessarily a big deal, but now we’re definitely a big deal,” Meyer said. “And to be the first team in school history (to win a section title and go to state). Just to be a part of that is incredible.”