1997 STATE TOURNAMENT
Whether they admitted it aloud or not, there was plenty of pressure on the Rapid City Post 22 team as they came to Pierre for the state tournament ten years ago. Rapid would be the host of the Legion World Series two weeks later, so home fans there were naturally hoping---would you believe expecting?---their team to qualify. But first, however, Post 22 would have to win the state title and the regional crown.
And it would be a tough state title to acquire because several land mines awaited in Rapid's path. One of them was Watertown, another was Brookings, another was Sioux Falls East for whom an eligibility question that had all of Legion baseball talking for much of the summer had been resolved in its favor.
Post 22 slid past its first opponent, Yankton, with no trouble, winning 18-2 in the tournament opener on that Wednesday morning. The "B" champion, Howard, put Watertown into a hole, 7-6, but it was a hole out of which Watertown would rise like a true champion in its own right.
East won the first of what would be five one-run games in the tournament, beating Spearfish, 13-12, after trailing 12-7 going into the bottom of the ninth. East's six-run rally started when the leadoff batter struck out but reached base on a catcher's error. The inferno had been ignited. There followed a hit batter, a walk, a single, a double, a sacrifice fly, a single, and a double, and the game was over.
Host Pierre ended the first day against power-hitting Brookings, and another stirring game was in store. The Bandits led 5-2 when Post 8 came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, and things were looking dark for the home fans.
Scott Rislov's infield hit was a start, and with one out Heath Stoeser walked. There were two out when Shane Prunty singled to score one, and the lead was cut to 5-3. Josh Bucholz laid down a bunt single to load the bases, the play that kept the inning going and gave Tyler Bryant a chance. He doubled to tie the score, then Jesse Beesley singled to score two more. A 5-2 deficit had grown to a 7-5 lead. After Gary Redden's hit put two men on base, Rislov got another base hit, but Beesley was tagged out at the plate.
Then Beesley had to go back to the mound to finish his complete game.
He did, getting the last two Bandit batters on strikeouts to finish with a flourish. The first day's drama was only a start to a magnificent tournament weekend.
Watertown rebounded with a 12-2 win over Yankton, and Spearfish lost another heartbreaker,12-10, to Brookings on a 3-run homer by Colin Steen. Rapid City stayed on course with a 13-2 win over Howard.
Pierre committed three errors in one inning as East built a 4-3 lead into a 6-3 victory margin.
The following afternoon Post 8 trailed Watertown only 4-2 after eight innings, but a nightmarish 11-run inning on nine hits and three errors gave Watertown a 15-2 win and ended the Pierre season in a foul manner. As it turned out, it would also be coach Raue's final game as Post 8 mentor.
Brookings took out Howard, and the feature matchup of the day was Rapid against East. It was a tight contest, too, 3-2 for Post 22 until the seventh when a wild pitch tied the game and a double by Russ Brink gave East the lead. A Kris Garry single in the eighth added an insurance run in a 5-3 stunner which gave Post 22 its first loss of the tournament.
Saturday's second semifinal showed that Watertown was cooking on all burners, scoring in double digits for the third straight day in a 15-4 blasting of East.
But that was the second game of that day. As East had taken the field that day, they were applauding Brookings because the Bandits had pulled off the unthinkable---eliminating Post 22 from its hopes of playing in the World Series on its home field.
Brookings led 3-0 until Rapid City scored four in the sixth to take the lead. A double by pitcher Colin Hofer drove home the lead run. However, each team scored three times in the seventh, so it was 8-7 for Rapid City with an inning to go.
Post 22 sent Mitch Messer up to lead off the top of the ninth. He walked, was sacrificed to second, went to third on an outfield fly, and scored on Jake Nordbye's single.
At last, Post 22 was probably home free with a 9-7 lead and only three outs to secure. But it took Brookings hardly any time at all to cut the heart out of every Rapid City fan. Steen led off with a walk and went to second on a passed ball. Jeremiah Charlson singled to score a run, and Tony Beste sacrificed him to second. Rob Bortnem stroked a double,scoring Charlson, and the Bandits had caught Post 22 at 9-9.
The tension was thick as Travis Engels came to bat. The game-winning hit by the son of the late Mike Engels, Pierre Governors wrestling coach, was a solid one to the outfield. There was no chance to throw out Bortnem at the plate, and there would be no Rapid City title that year.
So three teams were alive into Sunday.
Watertown and Brookings would square off first with East waiting to play the survivor for the state title. Brookings went up 6-0 after two innings and led 8-5 going into the ninth. The first two Watertown batters went out, and the count reached strike two on the third.
Oh, how cruel baseball is! Brookings was one strike away from the championship game when Jimmy Jensen was hit with a pitch!
The floodgates opened. Two hits, another hit batter, and two hits later, Watertown had arisen from the dead and led 9-8.
The crushed Brookings club went down in order in the bottom of the ninth. Chad Lohr came out of the bullpen to get the final two batters on outfield flies to Rusty Remmers, and the Bandits were reduced to tears.
The championship contest couldn't be any more dramatic, could it? As of a matter of fact, it could.
It was 2-1 for East after an inning, and it remained that way until Watertown---remember they had lost their opening game back on Wednesday?---took the lead on that Sunday night with a 3-run eighth to lead 4-2.
But East, determined to survive the tournament nobody else wanted it to win, got a walk to Jake Heiberger, a double from Matt McDowell, a single by Cory Gilbert, and a single by Russ Brink to take a 4-3 lead.
Watertown was down to its final three outs, but Jimmy Madsen led off the final frame with a single and was sacrificed to second by Remmers, who also reached safely on the pitcher's error as Grant Van Gilder, running for Madsen, took third.
East led by a run, but Watertown had the tying run at third and the winning run at second with nobody out! It was a fitting end to a rousingly thrilling tournament. Billy McElhany hit a grounder to short, and Van Gilder headed for home,
trying to score the tying run. It was close, but he was out at the plate. Still Watertown had a chance with the tying run now at third and one out. But destiny was on East's side, even if the majority of the state was not.
Lucas Van Gilder grounded back to pitcher Dallas Schneiderman, the subject of all of the ineligibility talk all summer long. It seemed almost fate that he would snare the ball that ended the tournament.
He threw to shortstop Ryan Sudenga, the coach's son, covering at second, for one out, and Sudenga completed the double play to first to McDowell.
A game of inches. A game of heart. A game to be remembered.