Kirby Tebrake admitted he was nervous. Starting pitcher Jake Hennen had a bit of the jitters about it.
Perhaps the calmest person in a Rocori baseball uniform about the situation was head coach Jeff Illies.
Tebrake had to come off the bench to play three batters into the game on Friday in the Class 3A state semifinals because starting catcher Chris Skluzacek suffered a groin injury.
“I was a little scared at first when it happened, but Kirby came in and did a great job,” said Hennen, a senior right-hander for the Spartans. “Kirby has been catching all my bullpens, so we’ve got a little chemistry.
“Between innings, in the dugout, we talked with (pitching coach) Russ (Huls) and we work good together.”
Tebrake could start at catcher for the Spartans if Skluzacek is not well enough to play.
Unseeded Rocori (18-8) plays fourth-seeded Mounds View (19-6) at 4 p.m. Monday for the Class 3A state championship at Target Field.
“I’ll be prepared to play,” said Tebrake, a junior who had played 18 varsity games this season going into Friday. “I hope Skuzzy’s all right, but if I get a chance to play, that will be a dream come true.”
Tebrake started the season as the team’s No. 3 catcher.
Senior Austin Athmann, a University of Minnesota recruit, went into the season as the starter. Athmann, though, injured his throwing elbow early in the season and Skluzacek had started since.
Illies did not spend a lot of time being overly concerned when Skluzacek got injured.
“You’re fortunate that you have that depth,” Illies said. “Skuzzy has been great for us all year.
“When he went down, I wasn’t as nervous because Kirby’s played a lot of ball in the last few years. He’s one of those guys where we wish we had another position (in the order) because he’s been one of our top hitters and he’s deserving of an opportunity to play.”
Tebrake went into the state semifinals second on the team in batting averager (.375) and tied for third in RBI (9). While Tebrake was a bit nervous, he also carried some confidence into the game.
“This winter really helped me with my confidence,” Tebrake said. “I played a lot with the Minnesota S.W.A.T. (team). My confidence hasn’t always been high. Working with the guys there and the coaching staff here have both helped me.”
The S.W.A.T. team, which is based in Monticello, was an 18-and-under team and it won a tournament in Missouri and took third in a world tournament in Florida. The team had instructional practices in the fall and winter to go with the games.
“Just having the time and gym space to prepare for the high school season was fun and it helped a lot,” Tebrake said.
And that, in turn, helped the Spartans get past second-seeded Minnetonka into the state championship game. The Skippers stole two bases, but Tebrake had no passed balls and Hennen had no wild pitches.
“I told him after the game, ‘Thanks for being patient,'” Illies said of what he said to Tebrake. “He’s never once complained. He probably could start for many other teams.
“He’s just worked hard every day and he did a great job with it.”
If he gets a chance to catch in the title game, he will need to help starting pitcher Reed Pfannenstein (5-2) get past Mounds View.
The Mustangs are averaging 5.3 runs in the playoffs and had 17 hits in their first two state tournament games.
“It looks like they have some good pitchers and fielders,” Hennen said of Mounds View. “I think they have a solid group of hitters. They didn’t look scared up there.
“Pitching wise, hit your spots, keep the ball down. Defense, we’ve got make the plays behind the pitcher and hopefully we’ll string some hits together and score some runs.”
Illies said that the Spartans will have a tough test against the Mustangs, who beat perennial power Cretin-Derham Hall for the Section 4 title.
“I was extremely impressed by them and we’re going to have to play well,” he said. “But Reed (Pfannenstein) will be ready and we’ve been doing a good job of not worrying about anyone but ourselves. Reed will give us a good chance to win because he throws strikes and because of his makeup.”
Rocori is likely to face left-handed pitcher Max Knutson (5-1), a University of Nebraska recruit who was named the Pioneer Press Player of the Year and the Star Tribune’s Metro Co-Player of the Year.
Knutson reportedly can consistently throw his fastball in the low-90s, has a strong changeup and a curveball.