Patriots win district VFW title

by Jason Olson
Thisweek Newspapers

Knowing the difference between swinging for the fence every at-bat and
playing small ball to manufacture a run is a lot to expect of 15- and
16-year-olds.

But for VFW Post 9433 coach Kevin Niemioja, the quick-learners have
helped their own cause by winning the District 2 title and a spot in
the Aug. 7 state tournament in Perham.

“This is a team made up of very good players, but they’re the
definition of a team where everyone does their job,” Niemioja said,
following the Patriots’ winning the District 2 title July 27.

Eagan’s three starting pitchers combined to allow six runs in four games, which Niemioja said really helped carry the team.

Eagan went 4-0 at districts, beating Mankato 6-1 in the title game
with Garrison Harris picking up his second win of the tournament. It
was his second complete-game win against Mankato in the tournament
after tossing a three-hitter in the second round as Eagan won 3-1.

Harris didn’t allow an earned run in the finals, and the Patriots’ bats came through with the 6-1 win.

Eagan began the tournament with Neal Kunik on the mound and picked up the win with a 6-4 decision over New Ulm before beating Mankato in the second round.

Taylor Mathiason and Kunik combined to shut out Arlington 4-0 in the semifinals. Mathiason was the winning pitcher, scattering four hits over six innings. Kunik completed the shutout in the seventh inning.

“Every year (I’ve coached), we’ve made districts, but this is the first team I’ve taken them to state,” said Niemioja, who is the sophomore coach at Eagan High School. “I like to see the kids succeed. It’s about execution … and this team executes better than any other team I’ve had.”

Execution at the plate isn’t limited to a base hit, but being patient enough to wait for the right pitch.

“I teach patience at the plate, and the most impressive stat about this team is their 168 walks to only 87 strikeouts,” Niemioja said. “It’s a testament to these kids going deep into the count, and it’s really impressive for a team of 16-year-olds.”

On top of that, Eagan has out-hit the opposition 430-270 while posting an impressive 30-10 overall record.

They have an even more intimidating 19-3 record in tournaments that includes winning the Apple Valley VFW tournament in June.

The all-sophomore team has a runner-up trophy from the Eagan tournament after losing to Lakeville North in the finals and fell to the same North squad in the third-place game at the Bloomington tournament. At Stillwater, the Patriots lost in the first round after a 3-1 start to the tournament.

Patriots leaders at the plate are No. 3 and 4 hitters Adam Carl and J.B. Durgan.

Carl leads the team with 28 extra-base hits with a .504 batting average. Durgan is batting .458 with two home runs, but is an anchor behind the plate for the pitchers as the starting catcher.

Kunik is getting things done on the mound, but his batting average is heating up, to a clip of 70 points since the start of districts.

“He’s been extremely clutch at the plate,” Niemioja said. “Whenever we’ve needed a big hit, he’s delivered. Either at the plate or on the mound, Neal is a portrait of calmness and he just seems to deliver at the big moment.”

Niemioja named Tony Hoffman Mr. Clutch after he collected game-winning RBIs in three of the last seven wins.

Zach Zenner’s success as a lead-off hitter is showcased by a team-high 37 stolen bases.

“His approach at the top of the order allows the rest of the team to see a lot of pitches, and it really helps us score runs early and be able to get a good read on the opposing pitcher,” Niemioja said.

Shane Jensen, Tyler Mangan and Jacob Nerhus are the glue that has kept the team together, “coming off the bench and performing at the plate, on the mound, defensively or pinch running,” Niemioja said.

Nerhus reached base four of five times in districts as the designated hitter, scoring three runs.

Meagher reached base and scored in his only at-bat and also made some catches in the outfield.

Tyler Mangan wasn’t used in districts but is a player Niemioja said he can go to at any time.

“(He can) throw strikes and get outs with a mix of four pitches, … really a luxury for a coach,” he said.

Shane Jensen didn’t have an at-bat, but his speed on the base paths didn’t go unused.

“Throughout the season, he’s done the little things that a championship team needs to have,” Niemioja said. “He knows what his role is right now and excels in it. Having that kind of team commitment from a 16-year-old is a blessing for a coach and is what great baseball teams need to have (to) have the kind of success we’ve had this year.”

If the Patriots can keep their team mojo going, they’ll move past Perham and into regionals with a shot at the national tournament.

First up for the Post 9433 team is Fergus Falls, the District 9 champions.

Jason Olson is at sports.thisweek@ecm-inc.com.

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