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A look back: Tigers claim state title in 2016

SPRINGFIELD — After a 5-2 loss to Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart and a three-game losing streak midway through the 2016 season, Springfield baseball coach Bob Fink chose not to get upset or frustrated with the way things were going with his squad.

Despite the recent struggles, which included getting swept in a doubleheader by eventual Tomahawk Conference champion Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop just five days earlier, coach Fink told his team something even they didn’t expect to hear.

“I told them after that third loss, believe it or not, we’re going to win a state title,” Fink said.

After that Game 1 loss to BLHS, the Tigers finished the season 12-1 en route to a Class A state championship at Target Field, the first in school history for baseball.

Heading into the spring of 2016, Fink knew that he had a talented team coming back with the likes of veterans Sam Baier, Branden Flock, Willy Vanderwerf and Jaden Mickelson.

The Tigers took second at the state tournament year before, and the unofficial motto for the squad in 2016 was

“unfinished business”.

“We had a number of bang-bang plays in that state title game in 2015 where if we would’ve just did the little things properly, we would’ve been safe rather than out,” Fink said. “We made it a priority to do the little things and my motto was it’s the little things that make a big difference. In that state title game [in 2015], there were five different plays that were completed that a lot of college teams would struggle with and we made those plays. That allowed us to become champions.”

Without question, Baier was the leader of the team. He finished the year with a .412 batting average, 24 runs scored, 21 hits, 24 stolen bases, eight doubles and a triple from the leadoff position. He was just as impressive on the mound, going 7-1 with 51 strikeouts and a .60 ERA in 46 1/3 innings pitched.

The Tigers had to overcome a major obstacle at the beginning of the season because Baier missed the first 10 games due to illness. Even while missing one of the top players in Class A, the Tigers rallied and went 8-2 over that span.

Baier, Flock and Mickelson were among the upper classmen that shined that season both on and off the field, but there were a couple of younger players that made the most

“Such a talented squad led by Sam Baier,” Fink said. “It was a refuse to lose attitude, but not only that, all the seniors were such great leaders and they took in a couple young guys that played varsity that year.”

Those two young guys turned out to be pretty talented baseball players in their own right. Freshman Isaac Fink was hitting at the bottom of the order and he went on to become a Division II baseball and basketball player at Augustana University. The other young player, Decker Scheffler, was a bat boy the year before. Scheffler was the 2019 All-Journal Baseball Player of the Year and future Division I Ball State University baseball player.

Both made an immediate impact for the state championship squad that spring. Fink ended up hitting .348 for the Tigers with 14 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. He also was an impact arm, pitching 17 innings, striking out 14 and earning two wins his freshman year.

Scheffler, meanwhile, was called up midway through the season after the Tigers made some adjustments defensively. Mickelson, who had been playing second base most of the season, was moved to the catcher position and that allowed Scheffler to play at second base. He ended up hitting .350, but coach Fink remembers the versatility and leadership of Mickelson, who was willing to take on a different role late in the season.

“Moving Jaden to catcher because it allowed to get Decker in as an eighth-grader, it solidified our defense and Jaden, along with Sam, became the leader on the field,” Fink said. “You can tell he was brought up in a baseball family and he understands the game and he’s just a baseball player. He led us in a confident manner and it was one of the best moves our coaching staff made.”

The Tigers entered postseason play 14-6 and were winners of three straight at the end of the regular season. They started Section 2A play with a 4-1 win over Mankato Loyola, then shut out Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s (6-0) and Minnesota Valley Lutheran (7-0) to earn a spot in the section championship. There, they earned their third straight shutout with a 4-0 win over MVL. In that stretch, the Tigers outscored their opponents 21-1.

Heading into the tournament, coach Fink said the team was completely all-in.

“We were all relaxed,” Fink said. “I think losing those two previous years to the eventual state-title teams, we were relaxed, confident and we knew in our mind that it would happen. I think those previous experiences changed everything, going to Target Field for the second consecutive year, instead of trying to find where we have to be, we knew what to expect and we were ready to play.”

Once the state tournament started on June 16, the Tigers made quick work of Lewiston-Altura with a 12-2, 5-inning win in Chaska.

The Tigers scored six runs in the first inning and never looked back.

Baier led the way at the plate, going 2 for 2 with three runs scored and an RBI. Flock earned the win, going five innings and allowing just one hit. He struck out five and he also went 2 for 3 with three RBIs.

The Tigers then topped Adrian 5-4 in the semifinals the next day. Baier earned the win, going the distance while allowing three hits and two earned runs. He struck out eight.

In that game, the Tigers overcame a two-run first-inning deficit and scored three runs in the bottom of the first and another in the second go to up 4-2. Baier went 2 for 4 and Mickelson went 2 for 3 with an RBI. Flock had another big day, going 3 for 4, setting up a state championship game against Parkers Prairie on Monday, June 20 at Target Field.

In what was one of the best Class A games in state championship game history, the Tigers came away with a 4-2 win, thanks in part to an RBI single by Carter Cook in the top of the 11th that gave the Tigers a 3-2 lead. Isaac Fink added an RBI single down the left field line to go up 4-2, and Baier caught the final out to earn the win. He pitched 5 2/3 innings in relief, allowing three hits and striking out five. Flock pitched the first 5 1/3 innings and allowed three hits, two runs and he had nine strikeouts.

While Cook had the game-winning RBI, it was once again Baier who delivered when it mattered most. Down 2-1 in the seventh, Baier delivered a two-out RBI double to tie the game at 2-2 and it went into extra innings.

“What I remember of that game, the intensity, it was crazy,” coach Fink said. “I’ll never forget the seventh inning. When we down a run and two outs, Sam Baier is up. I was like ‘what are we going to do if we lose again, how are the kids going to handle this if we came so close.’ And then, I looked at Sam, and sure enough, you just know he was going to come through. It was meant to be.”

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