Waconia is set to host the 2021 Minnesota State Amateur Class B and Class C Baseball Tournament alongside Chaska and Hamburg. While Chaska has hosted the state tournament in the past, this is a first for Waconia and has been years in the making, showing how far Waconia has come in such a short time.
“It started when we started talking about the grandstand being built, we never promised anybody that we would get the state tournament, but the idea was to bring in the biggest tournaments we could get, and obviously the state tournament is an example of that,” said Chris Ohm, vice president of the Waconia Baseball association.
The dream started all the way back in 2015 with the “Raise the Grandstand” project, when Lions Field was little more than dugouts, some fencing and bleachers. The baseball community put a lot of effort in maintaining the field, but did not have the facilities that mirrored their passion for the game. When the grandstand project was completed in 2017, the Waconia community had a ballpark that they deserved, helping them win the bid for the state tournament hosting duties. Almost nothing at the current ballpark remains from when Waconia started the pursuit for the tourney, showing how much hard work and dedication went into the new facility.
“The only thing at the current site that was there are the dugouts, the batting cages were there but have been improved,” said WBA president Tim Hukriede. “It was a tear down build up effort everywhere.”
The Waconia baseball community worked for years with the city, the school and local organizations to turn the Lions Field into a destination for amateur baseball. The grandstand can serve more than 400 fans with amenities including a concession stand, ADA compliant restrooms and a new press box. Seating includes Metrodome seats, bleacher-style seating and plaza patio areas. On both sides of the grandstand there is a plaza space for viewing the game over the dugouts and mingling with friends.
And since the opening, Waconia has received numerous signs that their new ballpark was well-deserved. When it first opened, the Waconia High School baseball team made history by having the first undefeated season in state history, winning the state championship with a 25-0 record. Those who remember the magical run know it was destined, as the Wildcats always found a way to stave off elimination at the final second, with several postseason walk-off wins. Then to celebrate, the Wildcats left Target Field for their own impressive ballpark.
“The real opening to the grandstand was the Spring of 2017 when the high school team played here and that was the year they went undefeated and won the state championship,” said Hukriede. “When we came back from the game we had a welcome home party for them and we just had this place packed. We figured we had a thousand people here. To me, that was the real grand opening.”
Waconia then helped host the Region 7C Tournament before hosting the tourney by itself a year later, setting the state record for attendance at a region tournament.
“We were the new kid on the block and everyone wanted to come check it out,” said Hukriede. “Even now we just had some guys walk in here today from Rapid City and they said, ‘Holy smoke, I thought this was a minor league park.’ We’re fortunate enough to have such a big facility in a nice size town with a nice ball park. A lot of people want to come here.”
But the work is never done for this passionate baseball community. Improvements to the ballpark have steadily poured in over the years. The field and fencing have been improved, a utility shed has been built, wind screens have been put up around the park and a party deck is now being built.
“For the six of us on the board, this is our second full time job - we’re spending 40 hours a week here,” said Hukriede. “It’s a labor of love.”
The Waconia Baseball Association credits all of those who have helped them get to where they are at now, and everyone continues to pitch in. There is plenty of parking around with the schools located across the street, the roads have been reseal coated, parking lot lines have been repainted, lights have been put in and a stairway has been added.
“The city knows its a big deal and they want it to look good too,” said Hukriede.
And leading up to the state tournament, the attendance has been booming, with three to four hundred people showing up for Lakers games.
“The game is so much more of a social outing now - half of the people there aren’t paying attention, don’t what the score is, they’re just there to have fun,” said Hukriede. “It’s kind of become the place to be in Waconia, especially the young families. The kids are around chasing foul balls, the parents are having an adult beverage and the kids are having their meal there, having some snacks and watching their hero play for the Lakers or the Legion team.”
Years of hard work have paid off time and again, with the state tournament being yet another time to celebrate Waconia.
“We couldn’t have hit a better whirlwind of the state tournament being won, grandstand going up, our numbers in the youth program are bigger than they’ve ever been,” said Ohm. “The community was a sleeping baseball giant that has always been there. There have been great people in the past - you can see it on our hall of fame walls - that have led Waconia baseball to where it’s at. It’s not just one or two or six guys or gals, it’s a community backing. At the grandstand to this day you’ll see people at the game that love baseball but never had anywhere to go. This grandstand is a destination, not just a field to go play on.”