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Bemidji VFW wins state championship

St. Paul RanView entered this year's state VFW baseball tournament with eight team titles in the 55-year history of the event. Collectively, Bemidji's District 9 had captured only two state crowns during the same span, one by Fergus Falls in 1960 and the other by Bemidji in 1985.

"RanView had all of the state tournament championship history and experience," said Bemidji coach Brad Johnson whose team faced RanView Sunday morning for the 2010 title.

"Joe Mauer won a state tournament with RanView. RanView is a regular at state and knows what it takes to win a title. And during it's 10-5 win over Worthington Saturday night RanView was playing great baseball.

"RanView was not going to be intimidated by us but we were not going to be intimidated by RanView," Johnson added.

Earlier in the tournament Bemidji stopped the St. Paul squad 7-4 but Sunday morning the teams staged the rematch in the title series. The Vets entered Sunday's action with a 29-5 record while RanView owned a 29-2-1 mark, one of the losses coming at the hands of Bemidji earlier in the tournament.

And Bemidji rose to the occasion once again, tripping RanView 6-3 in eight innings to capture its second state VFW title.

"There was no doubt that Bemidji and RanView were the two best teams in the tournament," Johnson said. "Even though RanView would have had to beat us twice on Sunday, I considered the first game as a must-win for us. We didn't want to deal with a second game and we threw our best lineup at them."

The best lineup included Trent Baker on the mound for four innings and Ryan Hirt for another four. Tournament rules limited any pitcher to 14 innings over three days and Baker and Hirt each had thrown 10 innings prior to Sunday.

"Both Trent and Ryan were willing and able to give us four innings and that's what they did," Johnson said.

Baker started and he allowed only two runs while fanning six and walking two. Hirt relieved and went the rest of the way. St. Paul managed a single run off him while Hirt struck out three and walked one.

Bemidji's offense made Hirt the winning pitcher when it scored three runs in the top of the eighth inning to break a 3-3 stalemate after regulation.

RanView threatened in the lower eighth when it used a pair of singles to put runners at first and second with one out but Hirt stiffened, retiring the side with a fly ball to shallow right and a strikeout.

"I think Bemidji earned a little respect from everybody over the weekend," Johnson said. "Nobody really knew much about us when the tournament started. RanView was the No. 1 team in the state and was favored to win. But we knew we had a good team as well."

In the championship game RanView struck first as it used a walk, stolen base and a single to manufacture a run in the lower first.

"Every game that RanView played in the tournament, when it had a chance to score it would," Johnson said. "In the first inning the leadoff guy walked and before you knew it we were down 1-0."

The Vets answered with a run in the second as Collin Leif doubled and two outs later Connor McNallan singled home pinch runner Billy Baumgartner.

The VFW took a 3-1 lead in the fourth as Leif walked, Hirt was hit by a pitch and Cody Jenkins doubled both runners home.

St. Paul drew within 3-2 in the fourth on a pair of walks and a delayed double-steal with runners on the corners. In the fifth RanView tied the game on another walk, stolen base and double.

"After RanView tied the game I asked the players what they would have thought if I had told them at the beginning of the season that we would be 0-0 with two innings to play in the state championship game," Johnson said. "We'll, we were in that situation and I asked the players to get the job done."

The deadlock continued into extra innings but the Vets took their coach's request to heart and scored three runs in the eighth off relief pitcher Alex Trierweiler.

Mason Bellew started the rally by coaxing a walk on a 3-2 pitch. Leif executed a perfect sacrifice bunt and both runners were safe when Bellew beat the throw to second.

Hirt followed with a high chopper off the plate that landed just fair and the VFW had the bases loaded. A run scored on a wild pitch and an out later McNallan bounced a slow-roller to third baseman Sam Sontoya. Sontoya opted to try and nail the runner at the plate but the throw was wide and Bemidji had its second run of the stanza.

Nick Conner added an insurance tally when his sacrifice fly to center scored Drew Peterson who was running for Hirt.

RanView put two runners on base in the lower eighth but Hirt worked out of the jam. And when he whiffed Sam Nieman for the final out, Bemidji celebrated.

"I jumped up and down and the boys hog-piled each other," Johnson said. "When I looked at the RanView side of the field they looked as if they didn't think this was going to happen. They were dazed.

"This was a great game between two great teams. It's the best game I've ever been involved in as a coach," Johnson added.

The VFW ended the year with a sterling 30-5 record. Only one of the losses, a setback to Moorhead in the district playoffs, came against a VFW program. The other four were to Legion squads.

"Counting the B-team in the spring, it's been a six-month season for the coaches and the players," Johnson said. "I wish there was more to come. This is a great group of players who may never get the chance to play together as a team again. It's sad that the season has come to an end."

But if the season had to end, the VFW could not have chosen a better way.

"Winning the state tournament is an experience the players, the coaches and the parents will never forget," Johnson said. "It has been a great year."

NOTES: Bemidji placed five players on the state All-Tournament team. Representing the Vets were Ryan Hirt, Trent Baker, Sam Dwyer, Cody Jenkins and Collin Leif. Leif also was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

State Championship Game

Bemijdi 6, RanView 3, 8 innings

Bemidji 010 200 03 - 6 5 0

RanView 100 110 00 - 3 6 0

Baker, Hirt (5) (W) and Leif. K-9, BB-3

Flud, Trierweiler (8) (L) and Evenson. K-9, BB-5

VFW State Tournament

Saturday's Results

Bemidji 16, Worthington 0

RanView 15, New Ulm 3 (New Ulm eliminated)

RanView 10, Worthington 5, 8 innings (Worthington eliminated)

Sunday's Results

Bemidji 6, RanView 3 (Bemidji wins state championship)

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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