A LOOK BACK: Sleepy Eye’s 2018 state tournament run
SLEEPY EYE — Heading into the 2018 high school baseball season, the Sleepy Eye Indians had high expectations for a team that was senior-heavy.
The Indians won the Tomahawk Conference title that year after they went 18-6 overall and 6-1 in the conference. But the conference title didn’t seem to mean much when section seedings came out and the Indians had to prove themselves yet again.
The Indians, who drew the No. 7 seed for the Section 2A playoffs, had to win a couple of road games in the playoffs before eventually winning the section title, the school’s first since the 2000 season. And they kept that momentum going, finishing second at the Class A state tournament.
It was a team that overcame some adversity late in the season and didn’t want to lose. They got a couple of postseason no-hitters, one each from Jacob Berg and Avery Stevens, and they were able to ride those two arms all the way to Target Field, where Heritage Christian Academy defeated Sleepy Eye 8-0.
The core of the team, led by Stevens, Zach Haala, and Carter Brinkman, were seniors. Juniors Landon Strong and Berg also proved to be leaders, and everyone else seemed to know their role and come up with big moments of their own throughout the season.
“It was one of those groups that had invested and knowledgeable parents going through the youth program,” head coach Aaron Nesvold said. “When they got up to the ninth, 10th grade level, you knew that it was going to be a fun group to have.”
The early years
Stevens made his varsity debut his freshman year and played the whole season. Brinkman played seven games in his freshman year and Haala came up as a sophomore and the future success was already beginning to show.
However, the Sleepy Eye varsity team went 12-9 in the 2016 season (their sophomore season) and they lost in the first round of the playoffs to Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City. During the 2017 season, the Indians went 12-8, but lost again in the first round of the playoffs.
“We had gone through at least four years where we were snake-bit in the playoffs,” Nesvold said. “That was the same thing, we played Cathedral in the playoffs and we were 12-7 going in there, so we had OK things going on but nothing real special their junior year. For most of those kids, it was trying to get acclimated to varsity ball and for the most part they handled it well. Our biggest nemesis with that group was can we get past the first round of playoffs, because if we could get past the first round, we felt comfortable.”
The Indians had the pieces in place, but it just seemed like everyone needed one more year to really take off. Stevens was turning into one of the better pitchers in the area and Brinkman and Haala had proven to be leaders.
The Indians started the season 2-2, splitting doubleheaders with Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s and Wabasso. Wabasso also qualified for the state tournament that year and St. Mary’s was a long-time conference power, so the Indians were just fine with where they were. After losing to Fairmont on May 5, the Indians won six straight games in mid-May to improve to 10-3 on the season.
However, the Indians lost a pair of games to Springfield late in the season before finishing the regular season with a 4-3 victory over Mankato Loyola to finish the regular season 11-5. The two losses to Springfield didn’t hurt the Indians in the conference race since they had clinched the conference title. But it did send a message.
“Their mentality changed and it was ‘boom,'” Nesvold said. “Then we had the issue of trying to get past the first round of playoffs. But the funny thing is, before the season started, I interviewed about 14 kids that spring and I asked them what they wanted to achieve. Nine of them said they wanted to go to state. It’s one thing to say it, but they meant it.”
While that was a solid record in most sections, it meant that they were the No. 7 seed in the section playoffs.
“We knew that we were better than a seven seed and I’ve never had issues with QRF and I still don’t, we just kind of looked at that seven seed — you’ve gotta win that first game no matter where you are and we actually liked the match-up that we had,” Nesvold said.
“It was kind of a motivating factor because we were a seven seed, I can only think of one error we had the whole postseason,” Nesvold said. “If you can limit your walks and errors, things are going to work out well for you.”
The Indians had to open the playoffs with conference rival Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart, a team that they had swept on May 10 of that year. The Indians got a good pitching performance from Stevens in the opener and they got that monkey off their back, winning a playoff game to advance to the double-elimination portion of the bracket. It would be over three weeks before they would lose again.
In the second round, they had to face Springfield, which was the No. 2 seed. Stevens again got the call on the mound, and even though he struggled on four days rest, he was good enough to send the Tigers to the loser’s bracket as the Indians won 11-5.
History was made in the next round with the Indians traveling to Johnson Park to face New Ulm Cathedral in the third game of the section playoffs. There, on May 31, Berg threw a 1-0 no-hitter against Cathedral. Berg out-dueled Aaron Portner and Haala scored the only run of the game when Strong grounded out to second.
“I think if I remember right, that was the first time that Bob Weier’s Cathedral teams have ever been no-hit,” Nesvold said. “To me, that says a lot, because Weier’s teams, Cathedral, they execute and they put the ball in play. That in itself was an amazing feat.”
After that, the Indians battled No. 1 seed BOLD, a team that entered the game 18-0. There, Stevens held the potent Warriors to just one run in a 4-1 victory to advance to the section championship.
In that game, they awaited BOLD again, and Stevens again earned the victory with a 3-2 win, ending BOLD’s season at 19-2.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been so nervous, they [BOLD] had some monsters and some speed, they just didn’t have a weak spot in their lineup,” Nesvold said. “Avery was dialed in that day and he just said ‘jump on my back’.”
On to state
The Indians had some jitters in their quarterfinal game against Hinckley-Finlayson on June 14, but with Stevens on the mound, it almost seemed like the Indians needed to score just a couple of runs to prevail.
Stevens turned in his best performance of the season, firing a no-hitter. He struck out 15 and walked one in a 6-0 win to advance.
While Stevens was dealing on the mound, it took a while for the bats to get going. Sleepy Eye scored all six of its runs in the fourth inning and then let Stevens continue to dominate.
“I think the first couple of innings, it was kids just being nervous being there,” Nesvold said. “Knowing that Avery was pitching the way he was, it was just a matter of getting a couple of runs.”
In Round 2, the Indians played South Ridge in Chaska. They turned to Berg and he didn’t let them down, allowing two hits and striking out 14 in 6 2/3 innings before Haala retired the final batter.
The Indians got to play at Target Field for the championship against Heritage Christian Academy. After a long rain delay, the Eagles defeated Sleepy Eye 8-0, ending Sleepy Eye’s eight-game winning streak and the season at 18-6. It wasn’t the upset that the Indians were hoping for, but it didn’t seem to matter.
“It was a lot of fun, we got to Target Field and got our pictures taken, I don’t remember when the game actually started but it was probably close to noon. The kids were in the dugout and I told them they could go up and sit under the canopy by the concourse and they wanted to sit in the dugout,” Nesvold said. “They said ‘we’re OK with just sitting here.'”
He said he’ll never forget the players’ faces at Target Field.
“We got down on the field and they’re looking up at the lights and looking around, you’ve got the kids going to play catch in the outfield,” Nesvold said. “Just the look on their faces, it’s something that you can’t re-create. The only way you can is if you get there again and it would be a different group of kids. To me, the best part about it was the four-hour rain delay because the kids got to soak up everything. Just the support of the community that came up to watch the game and cheer the kids on. Dean Brinkman said that after the game when kids were going up to get their medals, there weren’t tears, there were smiles.”