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Hot hitting propels West Fargo Patriots baseball team to state

West Fargo outfielder Eric Benson bats against Wahpeton. Patriots won 22 - 6. Photo submitted by Sue Benson

A streaky West Fargo Patriots baseball team got hot at just the right time at last week's state qualifying play-in tournament in Grand Forks, landing the No. 7 seed and a first round matchup with Williston.

Yesterday's matchup versus Williston was West Fargo's first time at the state tournament in four years, signaling that West Fargo Baseball may be finally emerging as a state power. Results from that first round game in Wahpeton were unavailable before press time.

The odds seemed stacked against the Patriots who went 1-5 the week prior during a regular-season-ending road trip. That performance forced West Fargo to go the long route to state and play in the double elimination play-in tournament.

The Patriots opened with a bang, defeating Wahpeton 22-6, and that was only the first of three times the team would reach double figures in scoring. West Fargo then beat Devils Lake and lost to Mandan, forcing the Patriots to play an elimination game against Jamestown.

The game stayed interesting until the final two innings when the Patriots scored 14 runs to win 24-11 behind big performances from first baseman Trevor Plehal (1 HR, 3 RBIs) and catcher Jonny Schroeder (4-6, 4 RBIs).

"We finally started hitting the ball, and it felt good. We strung hits together. We weren't just getting one or two, we were getting a lot of hits in one inning," said second baseman Spencer Flaten.

West Fargo ended up scoring 15 runs against Mandan in the tourney's championship game but still lost by a run. The Patriots scored a whopping 74 runs in the five tournament games. The one negative of the state qualifying tourney may be the team's pitching, which gave up 42 runs in the last three games alone, but with the way the Patriots were swinging the bat it didn't matter.

"The disappointment of the tournament was the pitching. We walked too many people and gave up too many home runs," said Patriots coach Shannon Miller. "It cost us two games against Mandan. They had nine home runs against us. But our defense really came around, and obviously our hitting was there."

Miller said he has the team's two aces taking the mound for the Patriots in the first two games of this week's state tournament. Matt Strahm, who has been hot as of late, pitched yesterday against second-seeded Williston, while Luke Steckler will get the ball for game two. Steckler has pitched well against Mandan and Bismarck this season, and the Patriots will face one of those two teams should they get by Williston. The two teams split a doubleheader in West Fargo on June 15, their only matchups this season.

"Now we're playing on an even foot with everyone else in the state. No one has an advantage right now. We all have two losses to play with," said Miller.

The stats are in

The team tabulated its regular season hitting statistics and named its annual award winners last week; all statistics do not include those from the state play-in tourney. Five Patriots hit over .300 on the year, while three more just missed the mark.

Strahm, also an outfielder, led the team at .397, while outfielder Aaron Sanderson (.374) and Flaten (.356) weren't far behind. Third baseman Jared Reber was next at .322 followed by outfielder Eric Benson (.304).

Plehal and shortstop Cole Mapes led the team with three homers apiece, and Mapes and Sanderson were tops in RBIs at 18. Outfielder/pitcher Tyler Gronbeck had 17 RBIs, while Benson and Flaten each had 15. Flaten and Benson were stolen base leaders with 15 and 14, respectively. Flaten scored twice as many runs (40) as anyone else on the team and had a team-high .508 slugging percentage.

Steckler (5-3, 4.64) and Gronbeck (5-4, 5.55) led the team in wins, while Stram (3-3, 1.76) was the Patriots' ERA leader. Other regular pitchers include Alex Pribula (3-6, 5.94), Kolby Schmidt (3-2, 6.82) and Schroeder (3-1, 4.43). Strahm led the team with 45 strikeouts, while Gronbeck and Steckler were second with 29 K's each.

Gronbeck was named team MVP, while Strahm was pitcher of the year. Flaten was honored as the rookie of the year, and utility man Phil Janke received the hustle award.