The Minot Vistas are in Omaha, Neb., for the first time since 2007. With the program's deepest roster since the 2010 state championship team, coach Todd Larson knew it was time to return to one of the region's top regular season baseball tournaments.
Larson believes his American Legion squad can compete with all five teams it will face between tonight and Saturday at the Decker Sports College World Series Tournament, but there is one problem. Minot's top two catchers are not with the team.
Infielders Hunter Oothoudt and Jacob Holmen will fill the roles of Jake Magnuson and Wesley Johnson. Magnuson is joining his Bishop Ryan High School classmates on a trip to Rome and Johnson is attending a baseball camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Minot Vistas shortstop Caleb Fornshell dives safely back to first before a tag from Moorhead’s Drew Anderson in Minot’s 7-2 win Sunday at Corbett Field. Fornshell leads the team into its Omaha trip with a .471 batting average.
"It's a big concern, but Hunter did a nice job (Sunday)," Larson said. "Jacob's done a nice job. They're back there trying to learn the catching position very quickly and we've got Braden (Lach) coming with us, so if we do get into some trouble, we can stick him back there."
Lach is the top catcher with the junior Legion Minot Metros. Oothoudt and Holmen gained experience through the team's recent doubleheaders.
Oothoudt will catch for Chandler Jacob as the Vistas (8-2) open the tournament against Tri City Red of New Brighton, Minn., at 7 p.m. tonight.
Probable starting pitchers in Omaha, Neb.
6/19 vs. New Brighton, Minn., 7 p.m. - Chandler Jacob (0-0)
6/20 vs. Denver, 9:30 a.m. - Hunter Oothoudt (1-0)
6/20 vs. Sioux Falls (S.D.), noon - Grant Larson (1-0)
6/21 vs. Woodward (Okla.), 9:30 a.m. - Austin Berntson (2-1)
6/22 vs. Creighton Prep (Omaha), 2:30 p.m. - Demitry Zafra (2-1)
Minot's remaining games are against teams from Denver; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Woodward, Okla.; and host team Creighton Prep. The annual tournament is played the same week of the College World Series, so teams also can see NCAA Division I games at TD Ameritrade Park.
"The toughest part of our schedule will be the next five games," Larson said. "We'll see five quality opponents from different areas of the United States. If we can pitch it like we have been (we can win), but we're gonna have to hit down there, though, and all these teams are gonna score runs. Hopefully, what we did (Sunday) just continues to get better offensively and we put on a good show in Omaha."
The Vistas are coming off a Father's Day sweep of visiting Moorhead (Minn.). The team posted a season-high 13 hits in a 7-2 win and added another nine, including Brady Lampert's run-rule-inducing home run, in a 10-0 win in game two.
"We can win all the games, but we have to play our very best," third baseman Casey Ryan said. "Against Minnesota and Sioux Falls, I believe we can play like we've been playing right now and beat 'em, but against Oklahoma and Creighton Prep we've got to play, like, our very top game."
The team plans to save its top two arms - Austin Berntson and Demitry Zafra - for those marquee matchups Friday and Saturday. Both players have 2-1 records and have won their last two starts. Berntson is expected to pitch against Woodward and Zafra against Creighton Prep. Oothoudt and Holmen have a short window to get comfortable behind the plate.
"Just being around baseball my whole life, sure it's new coming in, but you see what those guys behind the plate are doing and you just pick up off that," Holmen said. "It's hard to start right away, but once you get going it gets a little easier."
The pitching staff has instilled confidence in the replacement catchers.
"(Sunday), our pitchers threw strikes really well and that just makes it much easier on a catcher," Holmen said. "You don't have to go down and block balls in the dirt and everything and when they're on it's a lot easier. If they're on, I'm confident that we can have some success."
Larson is hoping both players' steady play in the infield leads to quick transitions behind the plate.
"I'm not worried about their hands," he said. "Dropping to their knees and trying to block pitches, we're a little bit concerned there. It's different from what they do in the field, where they can just come through it, but we'll be all right. They're good baseball players."
Larson described Tri City Red as one of the top teams in Minnesota. He has little information on the Denver team, described Sioux Falls as decent and has reminded his team of the success of Woodward and Creighton Prep last year. Woodward is the Connie Mack (18-U) defending state champion and Creighton Prep was the American Legion World Series runner-up.
The Vistas first played Creighton Prep in 2001 and Larson keeps in touch with that program's coach, Pat Mooney. Minot hopes to compete in Omaha at least once every other year.
"Hopefully, we bond a little bit more," Larson said. "We're gonna be on the bus for 12 hours. We're gonna take them to the College World Series games, which will be fun as a group. Again, we're just hoping to go down there and keep playing our aggressive style of baseball, both offensively and defensively. Hopefully, it's a trip that these guys will remember for a long time."