Raiders save the best for last
The Hastings Raiders baseball team defied the odds last weekend, winning two playoff games to earn a spot in the Section1 AAA final four tournament after a 2-16 Suburban East Conference season.
The last time the team made it to the final four was in 2007, when they also advanced to the state tournament.
Hastings entered the playoffs as the No. 11 seed. The team faced Albert Lea (12-6) in the first round May 29 and pulled an eight-inning upset, defeating the No. 2 seed 4-3.
Albert Lea scored first with two runs in the fourth inning after both teams struggled to get runners on base early in the game. Hastings ran a solid offense in the sixth. Justin Knoll came to the plate with the bases loaded and just one out. Knoll hit a double that sent Tyler Rohr and pitcher David Schoeberl home to tie the game at 2.
It looked like Albert Lea was going to score the winning run in the bottom of the seventh. The team had a runner on third with only one out, but Schoeberl struck out two batters in a row to end the inning before Albert Lea could score.
The Raiders loaded the bases again in the top of the eighth. Aaron Stoneberg's single allowed Knoll and Ryan Hackel to score. Wes Hedlund took the mound after Shoeberl walked two Albert Lea batters in the bottom of the eighth. Albert Lea only scored one more run.
Shoeberl pitched all but the last half inning. He struck out seven batters and walked four.
On May 31, the Raiders faced the third-highest remaining seed, No. 6-ranked Northfield (7-5) for their shot at the final four.
Hastings took the lead in the second with a single by Nick Bachman that sent Knoll home, and they didn't give it up the whole game.
In the top of the third, Rohr batted Tony Hammes home, and Schoeberl hit a sacrifice fly ball that allowed Rohr to score.
Northfield put up two in the bottom of the third, and Hastings responded with another run by Hackel.
The Raiders expanded their lead in the fifth. Rohr and Shoeberl both scored on sacrifice fly balls, one from Knoll and another from Bachman. Hedlund and Hackel scored on a double by Stoneberg.
Northfield scored two more in the sixth, but it wasn't enough, and the Raiders won 8-4.
Stoneberg pitched nearly six full innings before being relieved by Hedlund.
Hastings faces No. 1-ranked Owatonna (14-4) at 5 p.m. Thursday, June 3. The winner will play the winner of the Rochester Mayo/Winona game at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 5. The loser will go on to play the loser of the Rochester Mayo/Winona game at 11 a.m. June 5. All games will be played at the Red Wing Athletic Field, 885 E. Seventh St. in Red Wing.
Head coach Paul Hartmann said that playing a regular season in the toughest conference in the state helped the team do so well in playoffs.
"There is no question that our conference schedule has prepared us very well throughout the season," he said.
Their success is also due to the persistence and effort the athletes have put in this season, Hartmann said.
Going into the next few rounds, the Raiders plan to just keep working on the little things.
"Our game plan is pretty simple," Hartmann said. "We have nothing to lose at this point. Having said that, our guys are not satisfied getting to this point. We believe that if we pitch well and play defense, we have a chance against anyone that we play. We have consistently improved at the little things - moving runners, hitting cutoffs, making the routine play and throwing strikes. If we continue to do these things, we like our chances."
While their opponents bring competition, the hardest thing for the Raiders will be within the team itself.
"The biggest challenge facing us is to not get ahead of ourselves," Hartmann said.
The team's progress is a tribute to the athletes, according to Hartmann.
"Our kids deserve a lot of credit for continuing to persevere throughout this season," he said. "We have an outstanding group of kids who are excellent students and positive members of our community. These kids have earned this opportunity and we hope to continue to enjoy the ride."