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West Fargo baseball crowned state champs

Wahpeton's Jeremy Bontjes slides safely into second base, missing the tag of West Fargo's Andy Young during the state tournament in Mandan. Will Kincaid / Bismarck News Tribune1 / 2
West Fargo's Benjamin Huber lunges for a fair ball down the third-base line during Thursday's game against St. Mary's at the State Class A baseball tournament in Mandan. Will Kincaid / Bismarck News Tribune2 / 2

By Tyler Shoberg

Coming in as the No. 1 ranked team at the beginning of the baseball season can be a tough burden to bear. For starters, expectations are high, and every team in the conference is gunning for you.

So when the Packers entered this spring as the Eastern Dakota Conference's top seed, they knew the upcoming months would be an uphill battle.

But it was a war waged to glory last weekend in Mandan, with West Fargo's first ever state championship.

"It was a lot of fun, especially these last two weeks," said coach Brett Peterson, who was named state coach of the year.

Spurred by early aggression, stifling defense, and some lights-out pitching, the Packers picked off their opponents one-by-one en route to that coveted crown.

The icing on the cake: nothing but shutouts during the three-game series.

The end result was the achievement of a goal set by returning teammates determined to avenge a runner-up finish to Fargo South in the same game a year ago.

"Those seniors saw them celebrating last year, and wanted to be those guys this year," Peterson said.

Bound and determined to do just that, West Fargo players worked hard in the offseason, Peterson said, and "once the season started, they'd done everything they could to get better...and it really showed."

Now, West Fargo has the trifecta of an East Region regular-season championship, EDC tournament championship, and state title.

As a team, the Packers (14-4 EDC, 33-5 overall) boasted their lowest-ever earned runs average of 1.80, and highest-ever batting average of .341. And while a few players may have sparked West Fargo at various times, it was the team's overall balance that was its real strength.

"It wasn't a team where we got contributions from just a couple guys," Peterson noted.

The Packers' game plan for the postseason was to strike early, and then fend off any retaliation. At state, they did just that, scoring during the first three innings of all three games, and allowing a total of just eight hits.

In Thursday's first round, senior Andy Young struck out six batters and pitched a complete game shutout in a 10-0 rout over Bismarck St. Mary's during a game that was shortened to five innings.

"We really set the tone for the weekend with that shutout," Peterson said.

It was Young's sixth and final win of a flawless season; one that resulted in being named both state senior athlete of the year and Gatorade North Dakota high school baseball player of the year.

Young also earned All-Tournament honors alongside teammates Kory Wolden, Landon Uetz, Zach Steckler and Camran Bonnema.

"Andy put that zero up at the top of the first, and we jumped all over them at the bottom of the first," Peterson said.

The Packers scored seven runs after the first two innings. Uetz paced the Packers after going 4-for-4 at the plate with 5 runs batted in and a home run.

On Friday, Bonnema whiffed seven batters in another complete game shutout over Wahpeton.

Wolden was 3-for-4 at the plate with two runs, while Young tallied a run, 2 RBIs and a triple in West Fargo's 6-0 victory.

Finally, on Saturday, the Packers met their conference rival Fargo Shanley in the championship game. The two had met the week before in the East Region tournament title game, with West Fargo eventually winning 3-2 in a game stretched to eight innings.

Practicing what they preached, the Packers pounced early to score two runs in the bottom of the first inning, and then dug in their heels to shut out Shanley 2-0 and win the state title.

Steckler pitched through the first six innings, striking out six batters and walking two. Young came in during the seventh inning and dropped the final batters 1-2-3.

Young and Uetz both batted 2-for-3 with a run apiece, while Tucker Bucholz went 1-for-3 and tallied an RBI.

Winning the championship was a product of a perfect storm on the Packers bench.

"All three aspects of the game - offense, defense and pitching - came together at the same time," Peterson said. "Our pitcher attacked the strike zone, offensively we got production (from batters) 1 through 9, and we were sound defensively."

The biggest hurdle now will be defending those conference and state titles next year after the loss of 11 veterans.

"That's a big loss, but we have some guys who are coming back that will be a good core," Peterson said. "This team set a great model as far as what it takes to get here. I think we'll be ready for the challenge."