A baseball alliance of seniors from St. Michael-Albertville and Orono high schools finished on top of its preliminary pool at the Minnesota Senior Salute tournament yesterday, guaranteeing the team a spot in the championship bracket. The STMA/Orono alliance defeated Blaine 8-1 in the final Pool 5 game, with a leading performance from Minnesota-bound infielder Boston Merila, who hit three extra-base hits and accounted for four RBIs.

"I got some good pitches to hit and I put them in play," Merila said.

The Senior Salute, organized by the St. Paul Saints and hosted at CHS Field, is an ongoing two-week tournament for seniors who missed out on their last high school baseball season when spring sports were canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-four teams were formed to compete from schools all across the state. Larger schools compete on their own or in a two-school co-op, while some smaller schools are represented on teams covering an entire conference.

STMA coaches lead the co-op team, and most of the players are STMA grads. On Wednesday, two Orono players were in the starting lineup.

"[The STMA and the Orono players] got along pretty quick," Merila said. "They're a perfect fit for our team and they've risen to the occasion."

Earlier in the tournament, STMA/Orono had defeated Hopkins 8-7 on July 20 and "The Rappers" (East Ridge Raptors and Minnetonka Skippers) 5-1 on July 25. A team listed simply as "Blaine," but also featuring a handful of players from Centennial High School, also beat the Rappers and Hopkins, setting up a final game for first place in Pool 5 on Wednesday evening.

Although there was no MSHSL state tournament in 2020, Wednesday's game could have mirrored a matchup in it, had it been played. STMA's varsity squad was ranked No. 2 in the Class AAAA state preseason poll, while Blaine slotted in at No. 7. Both were considered the favorites in their respective sections, so they might well have met at CHS Field, which annually hosts most of theClass AAAA state games. (Championship games in all classes are played at the Twins' Target Field).

"We knew Blaine is a really good team and so we were excited to face them," Merila said. "There's no better place for a game like that than at CHS Field."

STMA/Orono spotted Blaine one run in the first inning, but would dominated the proceedings thereafter. Shortstop Zach Jans led off the STMA third inning with a walk, and advanced to second and then third on consecutive wild pitches. Catcher Iain Harken then singled him home to tie the score.

Third baseman Nolan Tichy, one of the Orono players on the squad, led off the fourth inning with a walk, and then Merila clubbed a triple to left field to put STMA/Orono on top. Shortstop Jordan Krupke later double to score Merila and increase the lead to 3-1. Krupke will be playing at Bethel University next year.

Two more STMA/Orono runs came in the fifth, on an RBI double by Tichy followed by an RBI triple by Merila.

In the seventh, Merila came up with runners on first and third and ripped a searing grounder up the third base line for a two-run double. Right fielder Evan Zamec of Orono knocked Merila in with a double of his own to finalize the STMA/Orono scoring on the day.

Through six innings, STMA pitcher Kolby Gartner allowed only three hits and completely stymied the Blaine batters after the first. In the seventh, he was relieved by Jack Sander, who allowed no hits in finishing off the game.

As champions of their preliminary pool, STMA/Orono moves on to the championship bracket where they will play for the overall title this weekend. The six pool winners plus two wild cards will fill out the eight-team bracket. With one day of preliminary play still to come on Thursday, Eagan/White Bear Lake, Woodbury/Stillwater, Osseo/Totino-Grace and a team from southern Minnesota's Tomahawk Conference have also qualified for the championship bracket. One pool winner and the two wild card teams will be determined Thursday.

STMA/Orono's path to the championship will be a sprint. The Knights of Sparta will play their quarterfinal game against one of the wild card qualifiers on Saturday, Aug. 1 at 2 p.m., and with a win, would prepare for a semifinal tilt at 8 p.m. the same day. The opponent there would be either Osseo/Totino-Grace or Woodbury/Stillwater.

The championship game will be played Sunday, Aug. 2 at 2 p.m.

"We've got a great group of guys and we're having a lot of fun out here," Merila said. "We were so excited to play in the spring; if we can win this, that would be awesome."

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