DULUTH — The Eveleth-Gilbert baseball team saw their chance at making the state tournament slip away late Thursday night as they fell 14-2 to Aitkin in Game 2 of the Section 7AA championship.
Downing the Gobblers 13-0 in five innings in the game prior, the Bears bats were on fire and their pitching and defense kept a potent Aitkin team off the board.
The two teams’ roles were reversed in the second game, however, as the Gobblers scored early and often while Eveleth-Gilbert struggled to get much going against the Aitkin pitching staff.
The Golden Bears’ Carter Mavec started the contest after pitching the final inning of Game 1. The Gobblers had the sophomore figured out, however, as a leadoff walk to Caiden Kjelstrom set the stage for the early Aitkin lead. Kjelstrom stole his way to second and then moved to third on a pop fly to right field.
Jake Ince at the plate, Ince singled to the shortstop and Kjelstrom beat out the throw to home plate, putting Aitkin up 1-0. Ince quickly stole his way to second with Owen Miller at the plate and then moved to third on Miller’s single up the middle.
Ince came home to score after a throwing error from the Golden Bears with Gobblers catcher Landon Janzen singling to bring home Miller making it 3-0 with two outs to go in the first.
The Bears opted to pull Mavec from the mound, replacing him with junior Will Bittmann. Bittmann got E-G out of the inning with the deficit still at three.
Aitkin added one in the top of the third inning while Eveleth-Gilbert scored their first run of the game in the bottom of the fourth.
Tate Uhan took a leadoff walk and then worked his way all the way to third on an error from Aitkin pitcher Carson Kullhem. The Gobblers’ Janzen then failed to handle a passed ball, allowing Uhan to score, making it 4-1 Aitkin.
Bittmann’s time on the mound was short lived as well, as a leadoff single followed by a walk in the top of the fourth inning ended his evening. He was replaced by senior Brandon Lind, who had already pitched the first four innings from Game 1.
The Aitkin bats stayed hot and the playoff offense they were known for prior to Thursday returned as they scored two in the fourth to go up 6-1.
Rain began to fall at Duluth’s Wade Stadium, challenging hitters and fielders on both squads, but it was the Gobblers who got the extra lucky bounces while the Bears found themselves continuing to fall further behind.
Aitkin extended their lead with another run in the top of the fifth along with two more in the sixth to go up 9-1 after five and a half innings.
Working on new Gobblers pitcher Jesse Goettig in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Bears took one run back, but they weren’t able to produce any more than that. Griffin Dosan reached on a leadoff walk and then moved to second on a balk with Uhan at the plate.
One out later, Mavec singled to the shortstop, allowing Dosan to score to make it 9-2.
Aitkin never took their foot off the gas late in the game, scoring five more runs in the top of the seventh off of E-G pitchers Jake Sickel and Andrew Torrel. The bottom of the seventh was no help for the Bears either with Goettig going three up, three down to end the game, handing the section championship to Aitkin.
Despite the loss, Eveleth-Gilbert head coach Jamie Lindseth had high praise for his program, their effort against Aitkin and the season they had to get to the 7AA finals.
“From the beginning, we fully expected this group of kids to be there at the end one way or another and we did that,” Lindseth said. “There were some ups and downs but once tournament time came around, we hit our stride. We were playing the right way at the right time and even after we lost early to Proctor we still felt confident and knew we could make a strong push.”
While the bats and the pitching just weren’t there in Game 2, Lindseth said his team executed their plan perfectly up to that point.
“We still felt we were capable of making it to fourth, third, second or even a section championship. We stuck to our plan with pitchers and pitch counts and ran things the way that we wanted to and I feel like we set it up right. At the end of the day, you have to execute the plan all the way through and we were really close to that.”
A large cheering section of Golden Bear fans at both games, Lindseth says he has never seen an atmosphere like the one on Thursday for a high school baseball game.
“The outpouring of support from our community, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more humbled. I was speechless to see the amount of people there who didn’t have ties to our team other than being from around the area. Hearing the crowd chant ‘Let’s go Bears!’ was something I had never heard at a game playing or coaching. Those fans had our backs and it was so amazing to see.”
Eveleth-Gilbert ends their season with a record of 21-6. The Bears graduate five seniors in Jake Sickel, Brandon Lind, Nick Kyander, Andrew Torrel and Tommy Schlotec. Of his group of outgoing players, Lindseth says it’s tough to say goodbye to a group he’s seen grow up.
“Those kids should be very proud of what they’ve helped build here the last few years. It’s hard to create and build a program and our guys should be able to look back and feel accomplished with what they’ve done. I’m excited to see what the next chapter holds for all of them.”
For the players returning next year, falling one step short of state should only make them want it more, according to Lindseth.
“I hope this makes them hungry. Hungry to not just get back to the finals, but to take the next step. We’re going to be losing some key pieces and our numbers will be down a bit but we have a nice bunch of kids returning and hopefully they’ll lead us like this year’s group led us and we’ll have a group of kids that will need to grow and learn and fill some gaps.”
Of the players that might need to grow quickly, that growth starts again on Monday with American Legion baseball.
“I want the kids to compete in the summer. Some of the seniors that just graduated will be back and I hope they continue to mentor these young kids in a more relaxed atmosphere. We want them to have fun but also work on the core things and get better every day. At the end of the season, we want to make a push in the Legion playoffs like we hope to do every year."