NEW ULM - Without a doubt, the New Ulm Gold American Legion baseball team seems to play its best with its backs to the wall.
Gold (24-8) opened last week's District 2 tournament with a first-round loss to Sleepy Eye, meaning if Gold were to advance to state, it would have to do it the hard way - by playing more games going through the loser's bracket.
While most teams would be frustrated with the early loss, Gold re-grouped and went on to win five straight games to capture the district title. While it wasn't easy, the team knew that it could be done and never panicked.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
New Ulm Legion Gold starting shortstop Kevin Larson is one of four college-aged players on the team. Gold returns to the state tournament and will play at 10 a.m. Friday in Chanhassen against Tri City Red.
"[Sleepy Eye pitcher Adam] Sellner did a good job just kind of mixing it up and in tournaments you see a little bit better pitching," New Ulm catcher Jason Shaul said. "We came around and we knew we had to score a lot of runs or our pitching would run out."
Shaul is one of four players coming back from college on Gold's team this year. Shaul played this past spring at Ridgewater Community College and he learned quite a bit from playing at the next level.
"I'd say probably the biggest thing was just in pre-game and practice, taking it a little more seriously and working hard in practice."
Shaul is joined by first baseman Zach Hoffmann, who is part of the St. Cloud State baseball program, Colin Wendinger, who attends St. Thomas, and shortstop Kevin Larson, who played college basketball at Iowa Lakes Community College.
"You come back from college and you see a lot better pitching in college, so that helps a lot," Shaul said.?"You see a lot higher velocity and better off-speed [pitches] so it makes it a little easier [playing in the summer], but you still gotta come through in clutch situations."
Larson is the team's leadoff hitter and has taken charge of that role. He's hitting .414 with 20 RBI and 21 stolen bases. His defense has also been stellar with a fielding percentage of 95 percent.
While he didn't play college baseball, he said playing college basketball helped him to be better prepared for this baseball season.
"Just the maturity factor of playing college basketball, you learn how to really work hard for all your stuff," he said. "Not everything comes to you, you gotta work hard everyday."
Working hard has been something that got Gold to where they are at now. But it hasn't been easy. As the defending district champions, they had added pressure put on them this season.
"There was a little more pressure than last year, because everyone knew that we were probably the top team and everyone was going to be gunning for us," Larson said.
Offensively, Hoffmann is hitting .458 with nine home runs and 42 RBI on the season. Shaul is hitting .495 with five home runs and 45 RBI. Dan Blackstad (.376, 27 RBI), Tim Kehren (.342), Jordan Guggisberg (.302), Drew Pfaff (.289), Dylan Schreckenberg (.277) and Erich Prokosch (.269, three home runs) are also among the top hitters for Gold.
Pitching-wise, Wendinger has 49 innings pitched and he has a 7-1 record and a 1.43 ERA. He has 62 strikeouts and has issued 17 walks.
Blackstad and Prokosch are both 4-1. Blackstad has an ERA of 4.87 and Prokosch's ERA is 3.18. Guggisberg (3-0, 2.00 ERA), Jory Dove (1-2, 4.20 ERA) and Matt Bergmann (2-0, 2.57) may also see time on the mound along with VFW call-ups Tanner Kluis and Chase Meyer.
Gold opens the state tournament at 10 a.m. Friday against Tri City Red in Chanhassen. If Gold wins, it plays again at 7 p.m. against the winner of Hopkins and Eastview Thunder, and if it loses it plays at 4 p.m. against the loser of that game.