At the start of the season, Watford City baseball coach Justin Johnsrud challenged his team to accomplish three goals: win the Region 7 regular-season title, win the region tournament and win the state tournament.
The Wolves accomplished the first task with relative ease, running though the regular season region schedule unblemished. On Tuesday, Watford City moved one step closer to its ultimate goal by defeating Des Lacs-Burlington 10-6 in the region championship at Jack Hoeven Park to earn a berth in the state tournament.
"It feels very good," Johnsrud said. "This is just our second trip to state and we've only had baseball for six years. That was our goal, to get to state. Now, hopefully, we can go down there and play well and finish the season off the right way."
Watford City’s Mitchell Liebel connects a single in the third inning against Des Lacs-Burlington in the Region 7 championship game Monday at Jack Hoeven Park. Liebel reached base three times and scored twice.
Dakota Neether went the distance on the mound, allowing six runs on six hits, striking out nine and walking one to notch the win.
The Wolves' only other state tournament appearance came in 2011, when they went 0-3 and placed eighth. They were the top seed in the region each of the last two seasons, but failed to advance to the championship game.
Watford City didn't waste time putting the Lakers in a huge hole. The Wolves plated five runs in the second inning. They loaded the bases with no outs and Keegan Thompson drove in two with a bloop single to left. Two batters later, Dustin Kleppin singled home Mitchell Liebel with a shot to left field. Brandon Allex capped off the inning with a two-run double.
The Lakers got two runs back in the third, but recorded just two hits over the next three innings.
The Wolves notched a run in the third and four more in the fourth to grab a 10-2 lead. They chased Justin Thomas after 3 1/3 innings on the mound. Austin Schestler pitched the rest of the inning and gave up a two-run single to Thompson, who finished 3-for-3 with five RBIs and a run scored .
"I've batted pretty good the whole tournament," Thompson said. "I just kept putting the bat to the ball."
Alex Davy took the mound for the final two innings, retiring all six Watford City batters in order to keep the Wolves from ending the contest early.
"We comboed three seniors that gutted it out for us," DL-B coach Andy Lach said. "I'm proud of them. They did a great job. They were tired when they started and they were able to give us six pretty good innings."
While the Lakers used three pitchers, Watford City needed just one. Dakota Neether went the distance, allowing six hits, striking out nine and walking one. He struck out five of the first seven batters he faced.
"He pitched very well," Johnsrud said, "like he has all year long. All three pitchers in the tournament showed what they can do. That's how they've thrown all year long, so no surprises there."
Neether and the Wolves ran into a little trouble in the seventh as the Lakers made one final push. Helping DL-B's cause was three Watford City errors in the inning. Neether got Layton Erickson to ground out to start the frame before Brett Schaefer singled and Vendsel walked. Schestler reached on an error and the Lakers loaded the bases with one out.
Thomas popped out to Neether for the second out before the Wolves committed their third and fourth errors of the game on consecutive batters. A grounder to first off the bat of Cole Grosche went through the legs of Andrew Sampsel to score two and Trent Grimes overran Davy's fly ball to right on the next play to plate two more. But Davy was thrown out trying to advance to third.
"Playing with that cushion, it's tough to keep your energy level up, keep the mental part of it up," Johnsrud said. "It can come back to bite you in a hurry and we were just fortunate enough to get out of there when we did."
The state tournament begins May 29 in Jamestown.
Mike Kraft covers Minot High athletics and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft24_MDN.