GRAND RAPIDS — It is always special to win a state championship in anything you participate in.
There is something special when state championships are brought up in conversation, and those who are able to reach that lofty plateau often list it as one of their most memorable moments.
The Grand Rapids 11U baseball team players and coaches can now experience that feeling after the team won the Minnesota Youth Athletic Services (MYAS) Gopher State 11UAA state championship in a 32-team tournament in Rogers, Minn., last weekend. Members of the state championship team, which is coached by Kyle Casey, Joe Rabbers and Mark Stupar, are Ari Lamppa, Drew Stanley, Nathan Garski, Will Shermoen, Dolan Verbick, Conner Keith, Carter Casey, Owen Simons, Jaxon Rabbers, Colton Stupar and Jameson Duell.
“The thing about these boys is they are all good buddies, they love to compete, they pick each other up, so going into the tournament we knew we had boys that don’t quit, and they had awesome energy,” coach Stupar explained. “They hate to lose and they hit the heck out of the ball.”
Stupar said winning the state championship was fun for all involved.
“It was awesome to win state and it was definitely fun for the boys. All the boys will now be fitted for championship rings and on Sept. 21, we get to go to the Twins game at Target Field and get our rings presented to us on the field before the game,” Stupar explained.
In order to qualify for the state tournament, teams need to do well at tournaments that are held throughout the summer in order to get a bid. In the first qualifier the Rapids 11U team played in, the team went 3-0. However, the tournament got rained out and despite the fact that the local team had the No. 1 seed, it did not receive a bid for the state tournament
Thus, Grand Rapids had to try to qualify in the last possible tournament in Alexandria, Minn., to reach the state tournament. In that tournament, Grand Rapids faced Blaine, the No. 1 team in the state in the 11UAA level, and Rapids came out on top 3-2. In the championship game, Grand Rapids lost to Morris but it ended up getting a bid to the state tournament with its top two finish.
“We have been coaching this group of boys for the last few years and in tournament play that game against Morris was actually our first loss,” said Stupar.
Grand Rapids entered the state tournament seeded 12th with a 4-1 record, and Stupar said the coaching staff thought the seeding may have been a little low. Irregardless, the team went on to win all six of its games to claim the state title.
Grand Rapids beat Orono on Friday 8-2, and then the squad defeated Eden Prairie 12-2 as the offense stepped up. Rapids next faced Rosemount, the No. 5 seed in the tournament, and it came away with a 12-0 win. All three games came in pool play and the perfect record allowed the team to advance to the Championship Bracket.
On Sunday morning, Grand Rapids played Big Lake and it continued its winning ways with a 5-1 victory. That advanced the team to the semifinals where it faced Proctor in an all-Northern battle. In a tight game where Rapids at one time trailed 3-0, the local team rallied to come away with a 5-4 win.
“We had some big defensive plays in this game to help us win,” Stupar said.
In the championship game against Farmington, Grand Rapids jumped out to an early lead and continued building on it in taking an 11-3 victory. The 11U team had used its two top pitchers’ remaining eligibility against Proctor in the semifinals, so Grand Rapids showed the depth of its pitching staff by winning the championship without its ace pitchers.
“Going into the championship game, that is where the depth of pitching really helped,” Stupar said. “We ended up throwing three pitchers in that championship game. They all threw strikes and got the job done.” Ari Lamppa picked up the win for Grand Rapids on the mound.
“Our pitching was good through the first three games and we scored 35 runs while giving up either four or seven runs. We used five pitchers total in six games but our offense and our defense were awesome at state.
“There was no one hero; it was seriously an all-around team effort and it was awesome to be a part of.”