by Eric Oslund
After earning one of the final eight spots in their district tournament, the Elk River VFW team did not have the finish they were looking for. They started out well, defeating Forest Lake 12-4 on Friday, July 21, and advancing to the semifinal round, but would follow that up with two consecutive losses.
First, it was a 5-4 loss to Maple Grove. They went down 4-0 after just two innings, but battled back. It was a 1-run game in the seventh inning and Elk River found themselves with runners on first and second. Noah Shenkle came up to the plate with two outs and worked the pitcher into a full count, but, when he finally made contact, the ball went right back to the pitcher who was able to cleanly field it and throw him out to end the game.
“We were so close,” head coach Ryan Holmgren said after the loss. “Absolutely battled and fought. Very impressed even though we lost.”
The team could have folded after losing a heart breaker like that, but they knew their season wasn’t done. In fact, they believed that it was just starting.
This VFW squad struggled early in the season. They finished the month of June with a 6-5 record, and had just gotten off a 3-game losing streak when the month came to an end. The Fourth of July break came at a great time, and when they returned to the field they looked like a different team.
Something had clicked for all the players involved, and they were able to go on a 13-3 run to close out the regular season – all three of those losses came by a combined four runs. They were then able to defeat Washburn two games to none to advance into the final eight and then that Forest Lake win extended their run to 16-3.
And as Holmrgen looked around the group of players kneeling around him after their loss to Maple Grove in the district tournament, he knew they were ready to do it again.
“I think our mentality going into (Sunday)’s elimination was, ‘We’re ready to go,’” he explained. “I think they all had in their minds that it was the start of another run. We knew we were good enough to make another run. I think they realized what it took.”
They went up against Totino-Grace on Sunday, July 23, ready to get back on the right track. Unfortunately for Elk River, though, their opponents were ready to make a run of their own.
Defense has been the question mark for this squad, and it cost them early on as Totino-Grace scored three unearned runs in the first inning, putting the Elks in a hole early, and they just couldn’t make up for it.
As the innings wore on the players began pressing, trying to do a little too much at the plate, which resulted in 12 fly-ball outs. Their bats had carried this team all season long, but they just couldn’t get it going against this pitcher, who ended up pitching a complete-game shutout.
Elk River would fall to Totino-Grace 5-0, ending their tournament and their season.
“It’s to bad,” Holmgren said. “We’ve been on a heck of a run here for the last month and not the way you want to finish it, but all in all you sit back today and think about the season, think about it being over, you think about the entire body of work that these guys put in all summer. It’s pretty impressive what they did. Darn proud of what they accomplished this year…”
But the story of this team is not yet finished. They will be sophomores and juniors this next school year, and will be leaned on heavily during the baseball season in the spring.
There are just a handful of seniors returning, which opens up a lot of playing time to those on this VFW squad.
“We’re excited,” Holmgren, who also coaches the varsity team, began. “We’ve got some kids who haven’t had a lot of experience playing at the next level, at the highest level of our program. But we also have a lot of kids who have the talent to be there. That talent, I think, is something that by the time next spring winds up, I think that talent is what shows true. I think next year will be a fun year because it will be a group of fresh-faced kids that have never been at that level mixed in with a handful of seniors that have been there and we’ll see what we can make of it. It’s going to be pretty exciting.”
Holmgren is expecting a lot of people to sleep on the Elks this coming season, but believes the kids he just finished coaching on the VFW team have the kind of never-give-up mentality that will give them a competitive edge and shock many of their doubters.
“We have the ability to win some games, and really surprise some people,” he said. “I don’t think a whole lot of people are expecting us to do much next year, and that’s just fine. We’ll take that.”