By Dave Vilhauer
Aberdeen American News
It doesn’t get much more dramatic than this.
One strike away from victory in the top of the ninth inning, Groton needed to add another run in the bottom of the frame to capture the Class B American Legion Baseball State Championship. Groton outlasted a stubborn Vermillion squad 9-8 at Bob Wiley Field in Webster Tuesday evening.
On the verge of celebrating a title, Groton watched its three-run lead slip away with two outs in the ninth before Spencer Knecht produced a little two-out heroics of his own, driving in Mason Madsen with the winning run.
“This feels awesome,” Knecht said. “There’s nothing better than this.”
The state championship is Groton’s ninth in the sport (other titles were won in 1976, 1978, 1984, 1990, 1995, 1998, 2000 and 2012) and allowed the squad to defend its title from last year.
“This one tastes a little bit better, for whatever reason,” said Groton coach Travis Kurth. “This was a hard-fought game and one that we are just happy to be on the right end of.”
Groton trailed 2-0 and 5-2 before battling back each time. Jamie Jorgensen’s two-run home run in the third inning gave Groton a 6-5 advantage. The champs padded the lead to 8-5 and appeared ready to hoist another title trophy before Vermillion scored three times in the ninth.
“That’s a good team that we just beat,” Kurth noted. “We knew that all along coming into the tournament. The more I watched them, the more I was impressed with them. It’s too bad somebody actually had to lose this game, because both teams are very deserving of this championship.”
It was Peter Haught’s single that pushed across the game-tying run for Vermillion.
However, Knecht and his Groton mates weren’t finished.
Knecht delivered his own two-out single to end the classic battle.
“I just got up there and he gave me one right down the middle,” Knecht explained, “so I swung at it.”
Interestingly enough, Knecht saved a run in the top of the eighth inning on a sparkling catch in leftfield. While that play will not show up in the scorebook, it ended up playing a key role in the contest.
“It was a pretty good shot, so I just started running back and just put my glove up. It just happened to go in it,” Knecht said. “I felt it, but I didn’t know if it was in there or not. I thought maybe I dropped it.”
The contest featured a wide range of emotions as a stellar group of athletes on both sides battled to the final conclusion. Groton concluded the season at 33-8, while Vermillion ended the year at 34-9.
“It was two great baseball teams. Neither one of us wanted to quit,” said Vermillion coach Jason Gault. “A whole lot of credit to Travis and his boys over in Groton. I wouldn’t have asked for a better baseball team to play against in a championship setting. That just goes to show you that American Legion baseball at the B level is alive and well.”
Tourney MVP Tanner Anderson of Vermillion had two hits, as did teammates Jayce Huska and Collin Bertram.
Groton received two hits apiece from Drew Planteen, Matt Thorson and Madsen.
The contest was a fitting end to a memorable career for Thorson, who was also a standout in football, wrestling and track and field at Groton.
“Knowing that this is the last one that I’ll ever be a part of for Groton, it’s a big deal,” Thorson said. “In the fashion that we did do this, it’s up there with anything that I’ve ever done in athletics. It was a great accomplishment.”
Thorson, who attends Northern State, almost didn‘t come back for another year of Legion ball.
“I wasn’t even sure if I was going to come back after my year of college,” Thorson said, “but I made the decision to come back and I’m so glad I did. It was so worth it. It’s been such a fun year.”
Earlier in the day, Vermillion forced a second championship game by beating Groton 5-3. Vermillion scored four unanswered runs and then held off a late Groton charge to hand the champs their first loss of the tourney.
Huska, Chayse Meierkort and Nathan Garrett each had two hits to lead Vermillion, while Madsen had a pair of hits for Groton.
While Vermillion pushed Groton to the limit, the champs still had what it took to be the last one standing.
“The whole tournament we had contributions from everyone, doing little things,” Kurth said. “We work real hard at the little things. Sometimes the baseball gods smile on you because of it and today I think they smiled.”
The Webster 13-14 Teener baseball squad was honored for its recent state championship before the first title game. . . . Mike Wiley, son of the late Bob Wiley who the field is named after, threw out the first pitch. . . . Female fans of the Vermillion squad wore shirts with a baseball field on them with the words “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” . . . Flandreau’s Kyle Scofield won the Big-Stick award for the highest batting average in the tournament. . . . Tabor won the Team Sportsmanship award.
Groton 000 000 111—3 8 2
Vermillion 000 202 01x—5 9 2
Jamie Jorgensen and Kasey Kurtz; Nile Morecroft, Nathan Garrett (8) and Chayse Meierkort. 2B — Groton, Jorgensen, Drew Planteen. 3B — Vermillion, Jayce Huska. LOB — Groton 6; Vermillion 7. Winning pitcher — Morecroft. Losing pitcher — Jorgensen. Save — Garrett.
Vermillion 203 000 003—8 9 6
Groton 204 200 001—9 11 4
Garrett, Jacob Odens (4), Collin Bertram (8) and Meierkort; Planteen, Parker Rossow (5), Dane Campbell (9), Jorgensen (9) and Kurtz. 3B — Groton, Mason Madsen. HR — Vermillion, Bertram; Groton, Jorgensen. LOB — Vermillion, 11; Groton 7. Winning pitcher — Jorgensen. Losing pitcher — Bertram.