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BASEBALL: Centaurs bound for 96-team Gopher Classic

Centaurs second baseman Caleb Carlson throws a runner out at first base Tuesday in the Bemidji American Legion baseball game against Moorhead at the BSU Baseball Field. (Ryan Pietruszewski | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The largest American Legion baseball tournament is scheduled for this weekend, and the Bemidji Centaurs have been waiting for it.

The Gopher Classic is made up of 96 teams, including 16 six-team pools that play at 16 different sites in the Twin Cities. Each team plays all five other teams in its pool, with the top team emerging to a 16-team single elimination tournament starting Monday.

“It’s something that everybody marks on their calendar, just from the pure aspect that you play teams that you’re not used to seeing,” Bemidji head coach Nate Blumhagen said. “We’ve got two teams in our pool that are from out of state, and through the years we’ve played teams from all over.”

Teams the Centaurs have played in the past include those from Canada, Denver and Indiana, and the value in playing out-of-state teams, according to Blumhagen, is the level of competition they bring.

“What’s fun about it is just the fact that usually these teams that are travelling from other states are there for a reason,” he said. “Teams that drive several hundred miles to Minneapolis just to play a baseball tournament are rarely some thrown-together, run-of-the-mill type of teams. So you know they’re going to be competitive. You know they’re going to be a well respected program from where there from. The kids just look forward to playing high-level talent.”

The tournament also features large crowds of spectators as well scouts from higher levels of baseball.

“Just the atmosphere itself makes it fun to play in,” said Blumhagen.

In about 20 years of Bemidji teams making the trip to the Classic, not one has emerged from the pool as a top-16 team, though several have been close.

This year, the Centaurs are in a pool with Billings, Mont.; Lino Lakes; Pierre, S.D.; Rosetown American Legion and La Crescent. Their site is at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul.

“We’ve gone down there and gone 0-5 and been very humbled, and we’ve played a game on a Sunday evening with an opportunity to advance,” Blumhagen said. “Just to get out of the pool is something that’s very difficult, so that's’ one thing that we hope for, but we know it’s still fairly lofty.”

The thing that’s more important to Bemidji, since they’ll be playing non-league games, is to keep improving as the last few games of the regular season approach.

“We’ll have (at least) five games there this weekend, get a few days off and then have four more in two days after that,” Blumhagen said. “So we’re looking to turn the corner and get ready for the stretch run here.”

The Centaurs open the weekend with a 2 p.m. game Friday, July 13 against Billings, with a 7 p.m. date with Lino Lakes to follow.