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Patriots take seventh at F-M Tourney

West Fargo Patriots skipper Brett Peterson hit the nail on the head when he discussed his team's strengths and weaknesses heading into the Fargo-Moorhead Tournament.

The Pats, he said, were an offensive squad. But in order to win, the team needed better pitching and defense.

His sentiments were echoed by the Pats' seventh-place finish at the FM Tourney, as the Pats excelled in games where they were solid defensively and got decent pitching. In the games where the team struggled on the defensive side of the ball, West Fargo was stomped.

The Pats opened the tournament, their first action in the region for more than a week after spending four days down in Omaha, squaring off with a team many consider the best in the East Region, the Grand Forks Royals.

Grand Forks, the visiting team on the scoreboard, got off to a solid start in the third inning, staking themselves to a 3-0 lead when the Pats committed a pair of errors and gave up two hits in the opening-round game. Pitcher Dustin Gregory's fastball was to the liking of Grand Forks hitters, who added one more run in the top of the fourth, taking command with a 4-0 advantage.

But the Pats' bats woke up in the bottom half of the fourth, rallying with one out. Matt Renfrew drew a walk, Grant Schmidt laced out a single and Cole Horsager reached on an error, loading the bases. Catcher Tyrel Thorson then cracked a double down the line, and two runs scored, cutting the Royals' lead in half.

West Fargo then continued to pour it on, as 16-year-old hurler Mike Kraft broke down in the inning. Josh Green, Justin Rheault, Brandon Reber, Zac Odegaard and Dustin Gregory put together five straight hits, highlighted by Rheault's double, to take control. By the time Kraft had put two breaking balls back to the backstop, the Pats had an 8-4 lead. The final run would cross when Horsager came to bat for the second time in the inning, this time getting a single, plating Gregory.

"We have the ability to put some things together if we just focus on making contact," Peterson said. "There's no doubt in my mind that we can score enough runs to compete in any game. It's just a matter of shutting down the other guys."

Gregory did his best, settling down after the third and fourth innings to cruise to the sixth. But a leadoff walk set up Matt Kraft, the Grand Forks Central grad who was essential in the Knights' run to the state title. Kraft launched a fly ball to left that cleared the wall, and cut the Patriot lead to 9-6.

Gregory, though, would work through the rest of the inning without giving up so much as a hit, and the lead stayed intact.

In the seventh, Matt Kulesa came in to get the save, but barely. Grand Forks scored twice, thanks to a two-run double to the wall that was almost snared by center fielder Renfrew. Kulesa settled down for a pair of fly balls and a ground out to end the contest.

In Game 2, the Pats faced Bismarck for the second time this season, and got a familiar result. The Governors fell behind 2-0, but exploded on pitcher Curt Hensley for seven runs in a tough fourth inning, as Bismarck took control. Renfrew pitched out the rest of the game and gave up two runs in the sixth, and the Pats also scored twice in that frame, but the damage was too great, and West Fargo fell to 1-1 in the tournament.

In the first contest on the second day of the tournament, West Fargo played red-hot Moorhead at Mattson Field in Spud City. The Pats looked good in the top half of the first, knocking home three runs to take a 3-0 lead. But Moorhead rocked hurler Tyler Greshik for seven runs in the first inning, and two more in the second, before Peterson turned to Adam Crist. It didn't help, as the Blues rolled to 16 runs on 18 hits and took advantage of two West Fargo errors, winning 16-6.

But West Fargo rebounded that afternoon, as Horsager pitched a gem for his third win of the season, shutting down Tri-City for a 4-2 win. West Fargo fell behind the Minnesota squad 2-0, but scored three runs in the second inning and added an insurance run in the sixth to pull out the victory, earning a spot in the seventh-place contest against Sioux Falls (SD) Post 15 East.

On Saturday, Matt Kulesa earned the start and went the distance, sailing through the first six innings, giving up one run as the Pats built a 9-1 lead. Post 15 East rallied for a trio of runs in the top of the seventh, but Kulesa worked his way out of the inning and earned the 9-4 victory, giving West Fargo a 3-2 record for the weekend.

"We're about where we thought we could be. If our pitching can continue to get better and we can keep hitting the ball well, this month we can just continue to improve," Peterson said.

They'll look to get better in a hurry, as they battle rival Post 2 in Fargo tonight (Wednesday) 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. at Jack Williams Stadium for the two teams' first match-up of the year. They'll meet again on July 20.

West Fargo will travel through the weekend, playing Mandan Friday, at Minot Saturday and at Grand Forks on Sunday before hosting Valley City at Veterans Field on Monday. The games in West Fargo on Monday are slated for 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.