The 2019 season may have started slowly for the Edina American Legion baseball team, but head coach Gene Larkin said, “The last six weeks of the season, we played well in all phases of the game. There was only one game in that span when we didn’t give our opponent a competitive game. I’ll take that any time at the high school level.”

Jonathan Bunce

Jonathan Bunce is one of the top hitters for the Edina American Legion baseball team. (Sun Staff Photo by John Sherman)

After finishing second in the State Division I Legion Tournament to South Hennepin League rival Excelsior, Edina wrapped up its season at the Central Plains Regional in Sioux Falls, South Dakota last week. Post 471 beat the host team from Sioux Falls West in its opener Aug. 7, and then lost to Excelsior 7-0 and Renner, South Dakota 6-5.

“We gave Sioux Falls an early lead, then we fought back,” Larkin said. “Andrew Enck had the game-winning hit in the bottom of the seventh. He didn’t hit it hard, but he hit it to the right place.”

Three pitchers worked for Edina in the regional opener. Lucas “Dukes” Flemming pitched the first five innings and was followed by Jackson Mollet for an inning and Tanner Hopkins for an inning. Hopkins was credited with the win. In addition to pitching, Flemming went two-for-three at the plate. Left fielder Drew Schmidt and catcher Evan Brown each had two hits, while Andrew Enck had two RBIs and scored three runs.

Excelsior beat Edina for the fourth straight time this season in the second round Aug. 8. Garrett Synstelien threw a five-hit shutout for the Fire Club, which improved to 55-2 with the win. Behind the pitching of Drew Bishop, Edina kept it close and trailed 2-0 after five innings. Then Jarod Wandersee, the Excelsior shortstop, delivered three RBIs to put Edina away. Brown, Mollet, Matthew Enck, Jack Murphy and Ryan Gallaher each had one hit for Edina.

“It was tight for most of the game,” Larkin said. “Drew went out and battled them before Wandersee’s hitting broke the game open. In two of our four games against Excelsior, we were very competitive [in 5-4 and 3-1 losses, one got away from us [14-3 at state] and this one wasn’t a blowout. You get better by playing good teams.”

Renner, South Dakota is certainly a good team, and had beaten the Rapid City Hardhats in the State Tournament the week before.

All six of Renner’s runs were scored in the bottom of the fourth inning, and then Edina scored all five of its runs in the top of the sixth. Aside from those big innings, chances on both sides were somewhat limited.

“We never quit offensively the whole year,” Larkin said. “Our guys kept driving and made pitchers work.”

Lefty Thomas Quello took the loss against Renner. His teammate, righthander Jack Bale, pitched two scoreless innings in relief. The previous week, Bale had pitched a gem in Edina’s 3-1 loss to Excelsior.

Edina had 10 hits in the Renner game, three of them by first baseman Cam Schmidt. Drew Schmidt had two hits, including a double. Flemming, Andrew Enck, Murphy, Mollet and Brown had Edina’s other hits.

Larkin called Edina’s 29-16 season “very enjoyable.”

He explained why: “This team competed. Our senior class has won at every level over the years.”

Edina is one of the few Minnesota teams that didn’t have a college freshman on the roster, and that made for a smooth transition from the high school season to the Legion season. The two players Edina did pick up for the summer are Brown, the starting catcher who led Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School to second place in the State Class AAA Tournament this spring, and University of Minnesota hockey scholarship winner Mason Nevers, who opted not to play high school baseball this spring.

GM’s Perspective

Edina Legion baseball’s general manager Nick Kennedy is in his 12th season in an administrative capacity, and he loves where the program is right now.

“My first year, 2008, we had only about 20 players trying out for the team,” he said. “Now we have more than 60.”

What changed?

“I look back to something my old high school hockey coach Willard Ikola said,” Kennedy observed. “When you start hanging banners, people want to play.”

Kennedy hung a banner in 2012 when he coached Edina to the state Legion title. He passed the reins to Larkin in 2014, and Larkin has taken the team to four State Tournaments since then - 2013 as the host team, 2016, 2018 as the host team and 2019.

“Coach Larkin is great,” Kennedy said. “This year he was more relaxed than I have ever seen him. He always puts the kids first, and they all want to compete for him. Gene has helped us continue the winning tradition along with Tom Nevers, who has coached most of our players in the traveling program. Tom helps them understand the game at the younger levels, which gives us a great feeder system for the Legion program.”

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