HIBBING — Was it divine intervention that helped the Hibbing High School baseball team win the 2017 Section 7AAA baseball title?
Or was it karma?
In some cases, yes, but it was also a group of nine seniors and one sophomore that sent the Bluejackets to their first state tournament since 1991.
The intervention came in the form of rainstorm when Hibbing was trailing Duluth Denfeld 3-0 in the third inning of their Section 7AAA championship game in Grand Rapids.
It rained hard enough to suspend the game, then two days later, Hibbing rallied for a 13-7 victory to claim the title.
“I remember that the weather saved us a lot,” Dylan Mattson said. “We were completely out of it. It was a relief. We wanted to get out of there, then we took a lot of batting practice the next day.
“We regrouped and figured something out, obviously. We never quit. We came back that next day and put up a lot of runs right off the bat. That helped.”
The karma… On an early-season road trip in April, the Bluejackets stopped and took a tour of Target Field, and according to Jaiman Lamphere, the wheels were set in motion for a possible trip to state.
“Our tour guide said, ‘You never know. You could be here at the end of the year,’” Lamphere said. “We were standing on the field at that time. All I remember is the possibility that we could be there.
“It was meant to be when we got there. How we got there was a crazy story, being down by four in the last inning. To make that happen, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Team members were Mattson, Austen Kolden, Riley Versich, Zach
DeBoom, Anthony Kanipes, Austin Glad, Andy Mickelson, Travis Carruth and Lamphere, who were the seniors, and Will Durie, who was a sophomore.
Also on the team were Joe Boggio, Clark Sayer, Hayden Westerberg, , Austin Laskey, Cole Mammenga and Kobie Zgonc
“I had played with those guys in VFW and got to know them,” Durie said. “I was friends with them. I didn’t feel out of place being younger. It didn’t feel that way. It was a talented team, a funny team.
“We didn’t take things as seriously as you should, but we had a chemistry on the field. We were all friends.”
Hibbing went through the regular season with a 13-7 mark, then the Bluejackets rattled off wins over Princeton 3-1, Chisago Lakes 10-2 and North Branch 14-2 in five innings to advance into the finals of the double-elimination tournament.
Duluth Denfeld had to beat the Bluejackets twice to advance, and the Hunters took a 2-0 decision in the first game, setting up the second meeting between the two teams.
Just three innings into that final game, Hibbing found itself behind 3-0.
The Bluejackets couldn’t get anything going against Hunter pitcher Cody Brown.
“We couldn’t hit the ball,” Carruth said. “The dugout was as quiet as you could imagine it. It wasn’t a good feeling. We were waiting for the spark to come from somebody, but we couldn’t get anything going through those first three innings.
“They were playing good baseball, and we were playing OK.”
Durie agreed with that assessment of the game.
“The atmosphere in the dugout wasn’t good,” Durie said. “We weren’t hitting the ball. Some days that happens in baseball, when the other teams’ pitcher is doing his job.
“That’s what happened in the first part of that game.
“Fortunately, the baseball gods were there.”
That’s when the wind started to pick up, and the clouds started to move in. A storm was brewing.
Once it rained, Legion Field became unplayable.
“We were all so happy,” Carruth said. “When it started raining and the water was piling up, there was talk of moving it to another field (Portage Park in Cohasset). We were all glad when the news came back from Wetz (Hibbing coach Jay Wetzel) that they were postponing it for two days later.”
The original game was played on Wednesday. That meant the Bluejackets had one day to get their heads clear to try and make a comeback.
On the day before the game was going to resume, the nine seniors had a group chat with one goal in mind.
“We said, ‘Hey, boys, we have to go. We can’t let this slip away especially after our junior year losing in the section finals,’” Carruth said. “We wanted it, so we rallied the troops and tried to be as positive as we could.”
Versich took a realistic approach as to what could have happened.
“Honesty, that game could have been over right there,” Versich said. “That would have meant no state, nothing. It had to be divine intervention. We didn’t have any energy. We got to talk about it and regroup.
“When we did come back, Denfeld knew in the back of their minds that there was a different vibe at the ballpark. We came in there so much better.”
At practice the next day, hitting was priority No. 1.
“There was some frustration,” DeBoom said. “It was a big game and nothing was going right. Mother Nature happened and everything changed. At practice, instead of being tense, Wetzel was loose with us.
“We had to get our hitting down because we knew who we were facing Brown. Wetzel was throwing us breaking balls and off-speed stuff. That’s what we focused on after the rain.”
How was that going to help?
“We knew their pitcher wasn’t throwing hard,” Mattson said. “We had to take normal swings and stay back on the ball.”
Finding pitching was going to be a problem for the Bluejackets.
Carruth and DeBoom had already hit their maximum pitch count, so it was up to Kolden to close the door on Denfeld.
When the game resumed on Friday, Hibbing had to get one out in the top of the fourth.
“Ozzy doesn’t throw hard, but he throws strikes,” Lamphere said. “When he gets ahead of hitters, he has a nice curveball and slider I intertwined each one. I used his slider, which broke from the middle of the plate to the outside.
“We got a strike, and good things happened on that first kid. Ozzy came up clutch. With one pitch, he got a pop up and that was it.”
Hibbing, on the other hand, had to face Brown, who was the Hunters’ No. 1 pitcher.
“He was efficient enough to come back and pitch,” Wetzel said. “He manhandled us earlier in the year. He pitched eight innings in a nine-inning game. He only gave up three runs. He shut us down.
“He had our number. We got to him late in the game.”
Hibbing got to Brown because it was more patient at the plate.
That’s when things started to change.
In the bottom of the fourth, Hibbing would go on to score four runs. The Bluejackets got one in the fifth to lead 5-3.
“All of a sudden, a switch flipped on, and we started rolling,” Carruth said. “We tied it up and took a lead. That’s when we knew we were back in it. You could see it in their dugout. Their backs were up against the wall after that one inning.
“They didn’t know how to handle it. They battled, but that was a big momentum boost for us.”
The key was getting on the board right away.
“We had to get something fast, otherwise, we were running out of time,” Mattson said. “We got some momentum, then it was a back-and-forth game. They made quite a few errors, which helped us also.”
The mood on the bench changed as well.
“We were all fired up,” Mattson said. “We got our momentum back, so we could breathe a big sigh of relief. We never quit.”
The Hunters did battle back, scoring four in the sixth to take a 7-5 lead, but Hibbing wasn’t done putting up runs.
The Bluejackets scored eight in the bottom of the sixth inning, then they hung a zero on Duluth Denfeld in the seventh to win the game.
“We told our kids to relax,” Wetzel said. “The one thing we were preaching was taking it easy and staying loose.”
Durie said, “We got back into it with a more-hungry attitude, and that built throughout the game. When we were doing well, we had all of the confidence in the world.”
Kolden got the pitching win.
“Austen shut them down,” DeBoom said. “It was incredible. I remember the final out was a ground ball to Will. He threw it to Glad, and we rushed the mound.”
“I don’t have the words to explain it, but we started celebrating with a huge dog pile out there,” Mattson said. “Austen closed out the game. He did well in those situations.”
Kolden never relied on a blazing fastball to get batters out. He used his guile and slider to do that.
“I thought it was funny,” Carruth said. “He wasn’t lighting up the radar gun, but he was good at mixing in his slider, and locating the ball. He mixed it up enough to get weak contact for outs.
“I’d lose it when he’d get a guy down 0-2, then he’d throw his fastball at 65 miles-per-hour. He was getting strikeouts because those guys were sitting on his slider.”
For Kolden, it was just another day at the ballpark.
“I was always ready to go,” Kolden said. “My favorite part about pitching is the game is in your hands. At that point, the team is relying on you, and I knew I had some good defense behind me.
“If I gave up some runs, I knew we would get them back. Plus, I had the best catcher at the time. That played a big part of it. I let Jaiman call the game. He didn’t throw too many ones (fastballs) down. It was either a slider or a curveball.”
There was one other pitch Kolden would throw.
“If Jaiman threw down five fingers, I just lobbed it in there a little bit,” Kolden said with a chuckle.”
That win ended a 26-year drought from a state-tournament appearance, but it wasn’t necessarily unexpected.
“From the beginning of the season, we knew we had a good enough team of players to get down there,” Carruth said. “To come back and win that second game was an incredible feeling.
“Not many things in sports beat winning a championship.”
At state, Hibbing was pitted against St. Cloud Tech in the state quarterfinals.
The Tigers had 6-foot-11-inch, left-hander Trevor Koenig starting on the mound against Carruth.
Koenig had just been drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers the night before that game, but Wetzel had one trick up his sleeve before the game began.
The Bluejacket coach put the pitching machine on three five-gallon buckets to try and simulate the angle of Koenig’s release. Kolden, who is only 5-feet-6-inches tall, had to stand on his tippy toes to feed the machine.
“The scouting report was he threw hard,” Carruth said. “He had a high arm slot over the top. They cranked that machine up to 85 or 90 MPH, and that’s how we took batting practice the day before heading down to state.
“We had to simulate his arm slot.”
St. Cloud Tech hadn’t lost a game all year, so needless to say, the Bluejackets weren’t getting much respect.
“People were talking before the game saying we weren’t going to have a chance,” Mattson said. “We didn’t think much about it. I don’t think we were nervous. We played baseball and got him off the mound.”
The team wasn’t nervous because Kolden and Kanipes kept the team loose with their antics.
Case in point: “There was one time in the Lincoln gym before the playoffs where Tim and Chris Zubich were telling us to take better swings,” Mattson said. “They told us to start driving the ball.
“They looked over at the batting cage and there’s AK and Austen hitting off a tee opposite handed. The coaches made us run.”
Or there was the time when the team was taking its time warming up just before the section 7AAA quarterfinal game with Chisago Lakes, which Hibbing won by eight runs.
“We were all in centerfield goofing off, and Wetzel came out spitting fire,” DeBoom said. “He told us we weren’t taking it seriously enough, and AK didn’t have his hat on. That was one of our favorites.
“That was the earmark of that team. We were a loose team. We liked to have our fun.”
“We got our butts chewed out,” Carruth said. “None of us had laughed harder. We’ve brought that up to Wetzel after the fact, and he laughs, too.”
Wetzel was a stickler for preparedness, and he wasn’t sure his team was taking the situation seriously enough.
When he looks back on it now, he didn’t have to worry about their demeanor on the field. The team wanted to compete.
“Traditionally, we had been a little too loose,” Wetzel said. “We had a continued discussion throughout the season where we needed to be ready to play by the first pitch.
“We just had a three-hour bus ride, and we were lethargic.They were supposed to be stretching in the outfield, and I hollered at them to get going. They peered over their shoulders, looked at me and continued to do what they were doing.”
To get their attention, Wetzel threw his fungo bat against the fence, which broke it, then he sprinted to the outfield and stood in the middle of the circle and told them to get ready for the game.
“Looking back on it, you think your approach might have one impact and it doesn’t work out that way,” Wetzel said with a laugh. “At the end of the season, the seniors bought me a new fungo. We all laughed about it.”
Hibbing did have one tradition. Everytime the team won, the song, “Nothing is Going to Stop Us Now” would be blaring on the bus.
“Everybody would be singing and screaming,” Kolden said. “We had the coaches screaming, too, There were good vibes all-around. We tried to make people laugh, then the boys would get fired up to see what we could do.”
Against the Tigers, Hibbing jumped on Koenig right away, knocking the tall left-hander out in the fourth inning en route to a 9-4 victory.
“He was good,” Carruth said. “I remember looking at his stats. I had never heard of him, but he was 10-0 with a 1.00 ERA. He was legit, but he didn’t throw quite as hard as we expected.
“Seeing that guy on the mound was an intimidating thing to see, but we scored in the first inning, then we knocked him out of the game. We led that entire game. No one expected us to have a shot. It was such a momentum boost that we knocked out one of the best pitchers in the state.”
That win set up a semifinal showdown with Alexandria.
The Cardinals had a 7-3 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, and for all practical purposes, it looked like the Bluejackets’ season was over.
Or was it?
“Wetz pulled us out front and said, ‘Why not,’” Kolden said. “We threw our rally caps on and kept the faith. The boys kept hitting. I was going nuts in the dugout. Emotions took over at that point.
“We wanted to make the most of it. We wanted to get to Target Field.”
“We all got together, and from the first batter, it started from there,” Carruth said. “It was an unbelievable game, something none of us will forget.”
Hibbing was facing Alexandria pitcher Brian Anderson, who quieted the Bluejackets’ bats through the first five innings of the game.
In the sixth, Brady Bergau was just as tough on the Hibbing batters.
In the seventh inning, North Dakota State University recruit Jake Drew took the mound, and according to Carruth, that played right into the Bluejackets’ hands.
“He threw really hard from the right side, but he didn’t throw a lot of curveballs,” Carruth said. “He threw straight and hard. Austen said, ‘Boys, we’ve made it this far, we might as well play on Monday, too. Let’s go.’
“We had great at bats off that kid. We were hitting gaps.”
According to Wetzel, Tim and Chris Zubich had watched Drew pitch the day before, so they had a scouting report on the senior righthander.
“Our senior hitters had struggled throughout the year against off-speed pitches, but they liked velocity,” Wetzel said. “Anytime we saw a guy who threw soft, we struggled.”
Carruth started the inning with a single. DeBoom hit a fielder’s choice ground ball.
Lamphere singled. Glad singled home a run. Kanipes hit a monster double for one run, then Mattson doubled home two runs to tie it.
“Dylan’s hit was the turning point of the game,” Lamphere said. “That’s when we thought, ‘We can do this.’ We truly believed it. We weren’t out of it.”
Mickelson walked, then a balk put runners on second and third with one out.
With a drawn-in infield, Durie punched a single past the second baseman, and pandemonium followed.
“That’s the best feeling I’ve ever had on a baseball field for the fact that it was a semifinal-state game,” Carruth said. “We were a huge underdog. We shouldn’t have been there in a lot of people’s eyes.
“We came back to score five runs in the bottom of the seventh. That was unreal.”
“I had my gear on, and I was standing at the corner of the dugout ready to jump over the fence if something good happened,” Lamphere said. “When he hit that ground ball, I thought the second baseman might have it, then it went through him.
“It was a blur after that, then the dogpile.”
Durie never thought that he’d be coming to the plate with the chance to win the game.
“I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but as people started hitting, it was awesome,” Durie said. “Being up in that situation, I didn’t feel any pressure. Wetz calmed me down. All I had to do was hit a fly ball to score a run.
“I probably did notice that their infield was coming in, but that didn’t matter to me. It didn’t change my mindset. We started hitting the ball and that became contagious. Baseball is so much about energy and team chemistry. Honestly, it was total excitement.”
Once that ball got by the Cardinal second baseman, Durie was quickly mobbed by his teammates.
“That pile was cool,” Durie said. “It was a surreal feeling to win that game. The whole team came together that inning, everyone feeding off of each other, getting hits. We were sharing the euphoria.
“It was one of the best feelings ever. Boomer comes in with the water jug, and that shocked me to death.”
DeBoom already had his celebration planned out just in case the comeback was complete.
It wasn’t going to be well received by the grounds crew at Dick Siebert Field or the state high school league.
“It was crazy,” DeBoom said. “I have pictures on my wall with our mouths wide open, jumping over the railing. I got the water bucket out and poured it on everybody. I got yelled at by the grounds crew. They weren’t too happy about it.
“I didn’t care. I had that idea even before Will’s at bat. If we walked them off, I was pouring water on everyone.”
Lamphere felt the full force of that water barrage.
“I was at the bottom of the pile, and I got water in my face and in my ear,” Lamphere said. “I got smacked by it all, but it was worth it.”
Wetzel, who was coaching third base, was late to the celebration because he spent most of that time apologizing to the site manager.
“He dumped ice on a field that had to be ready for play in 30 minutes,” Wetzel said with a laugh. “Even so, it was cool to be a part of a substantial moment like that.”
The only player that didn’t bat that inning was Versich, who was Hibbing’s lead-off hitter, but he still played a part in the comeback.
Versich made a diving play to end the top of the seventh inning to keep the score 7-3.
In his last at bat, Versich came up with one of his teammates on second, and although he didn’t get a hit, the sequence of events that followed took the sting out of that at bat.
“I ripped a fastball, the hardest ball I hit at state, and their second baseman leaped up and grabbed it,” Versich said. “I’m happy that I got out because that might have changed the whole next inning.”
Versich, who was on deck at the time, and he had a feeling he wasn’t going to hit.
“I had a weird sensation that something was going to happen,” Versich said. “Will was so young, the only underclassman we played. He ended up sending us to Target Field. That was cool, too.”
The winning pitcher was, who else, Kolden.
He didn’t allow a run in his two state-tournament appearances.
“It was one of those things,” Kolden said. “I didn’t walk many guys. I could hit my spots. When you go from a pitcher like Boomer, who throws harder than I can, they’re not used to seeing guys that throw 45-mph fastballs.”
Hibbing was off to the title game at Target Field, the place they had toured in April.
The Bluejackets’ opponent was undefeated Waconia.
The Wildcats won the state title with a 6-1 victory.
“They were senior-dominated and tough,” Wetzel said. “They pecked away at us with a couple of plays here-and-there. They didn’t exactly hit Carruth all over the park, but they had some well-placed hits that we’re just out of our reach.
“We needed the breaks to go our way, and that never happened.”
It looked like the Bluejackets might get something going in the seventh as Mickelson singled. Durie came to the plate and lined one into the left-centerfield gap. It looked like an extra-base hit.
“Their centerfielder came out of nowhere with a full-extension dive on that ball hit to the gap,” Wetzel said. “Had that fallen in, we would have been in business.”
Playing at Target Field was a thrill of a lifetime.
The team took batting practice underneath the stadium.
“It was an unbelievable facility,” Mattson said. “While we were taking batting practice, you could tell we were a little nervous playing on that big stage. It wasn’t that bad of a game. They got their runs by putting the ball in play.
“They had good at bats.”
Versich said, “For me, it was a storybook ending. When I was a kid, if you asked me any time, any day what I wanted to accomplish, it was always baseball. I loved watching the Twins play, and we got to play there.
“When you’re in the moment, it’s hard to not look around. We were like kids in a sandbox. We were grateful that we got to play there. It was surreal. It went by way too fast.”
On the bus ride home, Wetzel could see on his players’ faces how long and what kind of ride his team had been on.
“We were gassed emotionally and physically,” Wetzel said. “After such a wild ride, we were tired, but that epitomized those guys. They enjoyed being around each other. They also enjoyed competing.
“It was a combination of loving their teammates and competing. That’s what made that team special.”
Mattson took that a step further.
“It’s never fun to lose, but on the bus ride home, we weren’t that upset about it, knowing the journey it took to get there,” Mattson said. “It was awesome. None of us will ever forget it. It was a great accomplishment for all of us.”
Hibbing may have come up one game short of a state title, but that didn’t detract from the season the Bluejackets had.
“We had been playing together since Little League,” DeBoom said. “It made it special being with all of my friends. When we got that last out against Duluth Denfeld and we took that picture, that was special.”
“That was my best experience ever, playing at Target Field and going to state,” Carruth said. “I would do it all over again, especially with that group of seniors.”