Rocori is one of the baseball programs in the state that is constantly on the bubble for the top two classes of the high school season.
The unseeded Spartans (16-8) will make their first state tournament appearance since 2010 on Thursday when they play third-seeded Lakeville North (19-4) at 3:30 p.m. at Midway Stadium in St. Paul in the opening round of Class 3A.
In 2010, Rocori won the Class 2A state title. In 2007, the Spartans were the consolation champions in the Class 3A tournament.
Overall, this is Rocori’s seventh state appearance and third time in eight years.
“At this time of year, it’s really no different,” Rocori coach Jeff Illies said of the difference in classes. “It’s going to be a competitive tournament this time of season and there’s a lot of good baseball being played.”
The Spartans made the state tournament despite being a No. 7 seed in Section 8 and with eight regular season losses. So what was the key to winning five straight games in the section tournament?
“Rocori’s always been centered around playing quality defense and pitching,” Illies said. “Earlier in the year, maybe because of a lack of repetition because of the poor weather, we weren’t doing what we needed to do to help us win ballgames.
“Once we started getting some consistency with practices, things started to come together. I think there may have been confidence issues, too, but we got on a roll and we hope to keep it going.”
The Spartans beat Brainerd 2-1 in the section championship game and Illies said the defense was the key. Senior second baseman Marshal Wirtzfeld led the defense, making several strong plays.
“The funny stat about that whole game that I didn’t notice until the next morning was that we had 17 ground ball outs,” Illies said of his defense. “That’s how our playoffs have been going and what we have built our team on.
“It’s amazing how one good play in the field can spark you. Wirtzfeld made a diving play early in the game and it seemed to spark our whole team. We were flashing web gems all over the place. We try to instill in our kids that it’s 21 outs and you get better every out.”
Wirtzfeld is one of nine seniors (out of 10) that are likely to start for the Spartans on Thursday.
Rocori’s batting lineup will likely be: Mac Mueller (CF, .267, 4 RBI), Wirzfeld (2B, .368, 8 RBI), Austin Athmann (DH, .305, 15 RBI), Adam Dingmann (LF, .338, 18 RBI), Jake Hennen (1B/P, .256, 9 RBI), Jeron Terres (SS, .286, 8 RBI), Justin Kunkel (3B, .308, 5 RBI), Reed Pfannenstein (1B/P, .298, 4 RBI), Chris Skluzacek (C, .333, 5 RBI) and Blake Holbrook (RF, .283, 6 RBI).
Kunkel, a junior, is the lone non-senior. Holbrook will not hit if Pfannenstein starts on the mound, but he will hit if Hennen pitches. Illies said he has not decided whether Pfannenstein (4-2, 2.70 ERA) or Hennen (7-2, 2.07 ERA) will start against Lakeville North. Both are right-handers.
“Both of them command the zone and if you look at their statistics, their first-pitch strikes are upwards of 68 percent, which is phenomenal,” Illies said. “Reed will throw a lot of different pitches in different counts because he has confidence in throwing his off-speed pitches for strikes.
“Jake pounds the (strike) zone and keeps the ball down.”
Senior Derek Schlangen (1-2, 6.22 ERA) is the team’s No. 3 starter.
Hennen has signed to play for St. Cloud Technical & Community College, Pfannenstein with North Dakota State and Schlangen for Southwest Minnesota State. The other Spartans who have made college commitments for baseball are Athmann (Minnesota) and Terres (North Dakota State). Athmann, a catcher, has been reduced to DH duties because of a throwing elbow injury that he is rehabilitating.
Dingmann plans to play football for Minnesota-Duluth and Mueller plans to play football at Bemidji State.
The Spartans face a Lakeville North team that features five regulars who are hitting better than .350: Connor Christenson (3B, .385, 10 RBI), Erik Rutt (1B, .405, 17 RBI), Dalton Lehnen (P, .412, 20 RBI), Brandon Morgan (OF, .351, 20 RBI) and A.J. Sayer (P, .377, 9 RBI). Lehnen and Sayer are juniors, the other three are seniors.
Senior Jordan Jacobson (6-2, 3.10 ERA), Lehnen (4-1, 1.07 ERA), junior Nick Dorfman (4-1, 1.41 ERA) and Sayer (4-0, 1.40 ERA) are the Panthers’ top pitchers. Jacobson (Iowa Central Community College), Morgan (Iowa Western C.C.), left-handed pitcher Sam Petrick (1-0, 5 IP, Hamline) and second baseman Jake Braun (Bemidji State, .268, 7 RBI) plan to play baseball in college next season.
Three of Lakeville North’s four losses are to Burnsville. But after going into the loser’s bracket in the Section 3 tournament, the Panthers came back and beat Burnsville twice to advance.
“I know they’re a very good ballclub and they’re deserving of the seed,” Illies said of the Panthers. “I don’t know a lot about them, but we’ve tried to stress doing what we do best, which is playing defense and throwing strikes.
“The rest will take care of itself.”