South Ridge is confident as playoffs near
Baseball has been fun this spring for the South Ridge Panthers -- but for a team that has made the last two Section 7A title games, more fun might lie ahead.
Baseball has been fun this spring for the South Ridge Panthers - but for a team that has made the last two Section 7A title games, more fun might lie ahead.
Tyler Olin and Tony DeLeon are co-coaches for the Panthers, who are 13-5 with a game against Wrenshall on Thursday to close out the regular season. They’ve got plenty to smile about, especially after a 15-2 win over Carlton on May 19 at Wade Stadium.
“We played well,” Olin said in understatement. “We were all excited to get in a game at Wade, which is such a great facility now, and to play at night with the lights on was a really cool experience. It was a great atmosphere.”
Of course, atmosphere is always better when you’re scoring runs, and the win over the Bulldogs marked the eighth time this year that South Ridge has plated 10 or more men in a game.
“We hit well, and that’s great, but what I’m really proud of is the pitching,” Olin said. “We have six guys we can turn to out there and that’s rare for a Class A team.”
The Panthers are hitting .344 as a team, paced by senior catcher Zach Johnson’s rather stupendous .515 average in 71 at-bats. Four players - Johnson, junior Mark Lisic (.431), junior Christian Houle (.395) and senior Reid Clark (.353) - are hitting over .350, and nine players are hitting over .300.
What makes the Panthers more remarkable is that they’ve scored 164 runs in 18 games without hitting a single home run. However, they’ve got 12 triples this season, which is the next best thing.
Vinny Wood (5-1, 1.96 ERA) paces the pitching staff but Johnson (4-3, 4.23) pitches when he doesn’t catch.
“I love the enthusiasm they have for the game,” DeLeon said. “They’re a very coachable group. As a coach it’s easy to get your point across with these kids.”
The other unusual thing about the Panthers is the makeup of their roster. They have five seniors, four juniors, one sophomore, three freshmen and four eighth-graders on the varsity.
“We have a lot of seniors who bring experience, but our eighth-grade group is the next big wave,” Olin said. “Right now they don’t see a lot of varsity time but we count on a vast arrangement of talent and ages.”
Freshman Elias Tuominen starts at second base - and is hitting .302, as an example of what the future might hold for South Ridge.
DeLeon, for his part, is proud of the team’s resiliency. The Panthers won their first nine games in a row but then lost consecutive games to Esko and Mountain Iron-Buhl. Then they beat McGregor/Cromwell/Wright 19-0 in their next game.
“There wasn’t a lot of concern about falling apart with these kids,” DeLeon said. “When things have gotten bad they have responded in a positive way.”
That said, South Ridge lost two games over the weekend - one of those to Cherry in an expensive section loss.
“We had played six games in six days and that took some getting used to,” DeLeon said. “Now we can have some time off before we play Wrenshall in our last game.”
South Ridge lost 11-3 to Esko, in a game Olin said was a learning experience. “We hung with them for a few innings but they are a very good team,” he said. “They have to be the section favorite.”
Right now, the computer rankings used to determine section seeding have the Panthers second behind Cherry - which is why the loss to the Tigers was so expensive.
“We’re hoping that this is our year,” Olin said. “We lost to Ely and Deer River to go to state the last two years so we’re hoping this is the year to get there.”
“We were No. 1 most of the season but Cherry has been playing good ball so we give them some credit,” DeLeon said. “But, if the computer rankings meant anything, we should have just gone up to Cherry and won without showing up. But that didn’t happen. We told the players that. We have to focus on our team and get ready.”
“We have confidence that we should be there at the end (of the playoffs) without sounding arrogant,” DeLeon added. “We aren’t good enough to throw our hats out there and score runs but I would rather have no other team than the one we have going into the playoffs. There are lots of good teams, players and coaches out there, but we feel confident we can get the results.”