Exhausted at the end of a six-game Central Plains American Legion Baseball Regional Tournament, Excelsior fell just short of winning a berth in the Legion World Series.
Earlier this season, general manager and bench coach Jim Peck called this team the best Excelsior team ever. Even without the World Series berth, nobody can dispute that. The Fire Club finished 55-4 overall.
Unfortunately, two of the four losses came on the last day of the season, 8-0 and 3-2 to Fargo, North Dakota Post 2.
Fargo’s team will fly to Shelby, North Carolina for the Legion World Series, while Excelsior’s players and coaches returned to Minnesota from the regional site, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on a chartered bus.
The regional championship game was hard-fought and ended with Will Sturek on first base, carrying the potential tying run.
Depth, especially pitching depth, keyed the Fire Club’s success this season.
“It’s awesome,” captain Jarod Wandersee said. “Everybody on the team can pitch.”
As for the Fire Club’s hitting, a .340 aggregate average says it all. Will Sturek, Mike Sturek, Nick Thimsen and Ike Fuecker batted over .400, while Jarod Wandersee and Jack Hanson were close. Will Sturek hit a team-leading 14 home runs.
With the Fire Club’s winning percentage this summer, it’s not surprising that there are a number of undefeated pitchers on the staff, led by Sam Tyrpa (10-0) and Garrett Synstelien (8-0).
Defensively, the Fire Club played the same infield in almost every game with Mitch Klass at first base, Hanson at second, Wandersee at shortstop and Matt Mortensen at third. Ben Stolar was the starting catcher and Sean Arnal also saw action behind the plate. Will Sturek anchored the outfield in center, with Thimsen almost always in right and Hunter Wehling usually in left. Mike Sturek played center field when his brother pitched and saw a lot of at-bats as the designated hitter. Utility players Fuecker in the outfield and Evan Steingas in the infield had opportunities to contribute..
In addition to Tyrpa and Synstelien, the Fire Club’s pitching staff relied on the Sturek twins, Ethan Rommes, Will LaLonde, Aaron Wukmir, Klass and Fuecker.
The Stureks, Tyrpa, Synstelien, LaLonde and Rommes all pitched more than 30 innings, with Tyrpa, LaLonde and Synstelien approaching 50 and Mike Sturek just above 50.
“There is so much talent here,” LaLonde said during the State Tournament. “We trust everyone on the team.”
That includes the respect the team has for the coaching staff - Hager, general manager Jim Peck, pitching coach Adam Goethke and base coaches Andrew Shotwell and Alex LaPorte.
Among the Fire Club’s most amazing achievements this year was losing only one game to a Minnesota opponent. The defeat came in the quarterfinals of the 96-team Gopher Classic, when righthander Nick Kaye from Wayzata defeated the Fire Club 4-2.
Following are highlights from each of the Fire Club’s games.
Fargo, ND 2
In a surprisingly high-scoring game in the opening round, the two favorites in the tournament just kept swinging, and the final result was Excelsior’s 17-11 win over Fargo, North Dakota Post 2.
Second baseman Jack Hanson was the player of the game for Excelsior, going four-for-five at the plate with four runs scored and two RBIs. Jarod Wandersee, Mike Sturek, Mitch Klass, Hunter Wehling and Matt Mortensen added to the Fire Club’s hit barrage with two each. Both of Mortensen’s hits were doubles. Will Sturek had one hit, walked twice and scored three runs.
Excelsior pitched well enough tow in, while giving up 13 hits, Aaron Wukmir was the winner in relief of starter Mike Sturek, and Sean Arnal did the closing.
Sixteen of Excelsior’s 17 runs were earned, while only six of Fargo’s 11 runs were earned.
The regional committee threw the Minnesota teams a curveball, matching them up in the second round of winners’ bracket play, and Excelsior prevailed in its third meeting of the year with South Hennepin Legion League rival Edina.
Righthander Garrett Synstelien pitched a five-hitter for the Fire Club. His line included four strikeouts, no walks and only 74 pitches in the seven-inning ballgame.
The top of the order did most of the damage for the Fire Club, with Wandersee and Hanson getting two hits each and combining for six of the seven RBIs. Will Sturek added two hits and Nick Thimsen, the State Tournament MVP in Minnesota, continued to pound the ball in a three-for-four performance. For the second game in a row, Klass provided two hits. Catcher Ben Stolar had a perfect night at the plate with a hit, three walks and three runs scored. Mortensen had one hit, which was good for an RBI, as the Fire Club defeated Edina’s pitching ace, Drew Bishop.
Appleton, Wis. 1
Coach Hager tabbed Will LaLonde to pitch against the Wisconsin champs in round three, and he delivered the goods for 5 and 2/3 innings before giving way to the relief ace, Wukmir. LaLonde allowed five hits and walked one. Wukmir allowed one hit in the final 1 and 1/3 innings for his second quality appearance of the regional.
Arnal hit the ball with authority, leading the way with two singles, a double and two RBIs in four at-bats. Hanson went two-for-three with two RBIs and Thimsen went two-for-four with two RBIs. Mortensen continued his hitting streak with two hits, while Klass and the Sturek twins continued their hitting streaks with a hit apiece.
The Fire Club took a 6-0 lead before Appleton scored its only run in the top of the fifth inning.
Renner, SD 2
Renner, South Dakota was coming off a 9-8 win over Minnesota state runner-up Edina, but had nothing left for its game against the Fire Club.
Excelsior beat the South Dakota champs by the 10-run rule with six players each supplying two hits. Hanson, Will Sturek, Mike Sturek, Thimsen, Mortensen and Klass all accomplished that feat. Will Sturek, Wandersee and Mortensen each had three RBIs.
Excelsior pitcher Sam Tyrpa was simply too fast for Renner. The righthander needed 74 pitches to complete a four-hitter over five innings. Fifty of Tyrpa’s 74 pitches were strikes, as he boosted his season record to 10-0.
Renner’s pitchers had extreme trouble getting ahead in the count, throwing 13 first-pitch strikes to the 33 hitters they faced.
Fargo, ND 8
Excelsior ran into trouble during its rematch against Fargo in the first championship game on Sunday.
For the first time in the regional, Excelsior couldn’t get the bats going, and the result was an 8-0 loss. It was a close game most of the way before Fargo tacked on two runs in the top of the sixth and two more in the top of the seventh.
Excelsior starter Ethan Rommes pitched 5 and 1/3 innings before Fuecker came on in relief. Fargo had 12 hits to five for the Fire Club.
Hanson had a perfect day at the plate, going three-for-three, but the only other Fire Club hits were a double by Arnal and a single by Klass.
Hanson and Klass were the only players to have hits in each of the first five regional games.
Fargo, ND 3
Each team entered the second game on Sunday with one loss, so it was a classic winner-take-all showdown in Sioux Falls.
Although Will Sturek pitched well enough to win, allowing eight hits in six innings, Fargo scored the go-ahead run in the sixth inning on a sacrifice fly.
Will Sturek’s perfect day at the plate was two-for-two with a walk and a hit by pitch. He had one of the RBIs and his twin brother Mike had the other. Mike had one of Excelsior’s five hits, as did Mortensen and Wandersee.
General manager Jim Peck, a Legion Hall-of-Famer who has been in charge of the team since the mid-1970s, summed up Excelsior’s season: “Top to bottom, this is the best team we’ve ever had. We have great kids, and they really compete. We had a few chances [in the second championship game], but not many.”
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