RESURGENT AND EMERGENT: Courtland and Minneota end long state tourney droughts

By Patrick Johnson

In this historic 100th season, two Class C teams – Courtland and Minneota – earned a “trip to the show” for the first time in a very, very long time.

Courtland’s young guns end a 78-year drought 

When the Courtland Cubs punched its ticket to the Minnesota Baseball Association State Amateur Baseball Tournament it ended a drought dating back to World War II.

The Cubs, who play in the 12-team Tomahawk East league, defeated rival Stark 3-2 in the regional championship to qualify for the state tournament for the first time since 1945.

To be fair, Courtland didn’t have a team for roughly 15 of those years, until the current version of the Cubs came together in 2015.

Chase Meyer, co-manager of Courtland, was one of three current players who were also on that team back in 2015. 

“When we first got back into the league, obviously, getting to state was the goal from day one,” Meyer said. “But, we had no idea how long it would take or what our personnel would look like whatsoever.”

Meyer said the makeup of the team has changed quite a bit in the eight years since its reformation. However, he said basically the same group of guys has been in the region title game with a state tournament appearance on the line in two of the past three seasons.

“It’s been a little frustrating the last couple of years, but it was really rewarding knowing we were able to finally punch our ticket,” Meyer said. “We kept saying to ourselves, this year is going to be different. Finally, this year, we were able to break through.”

Meyer said he believed a bit of continuity helped get them over the hump. 

“I just think that another year of experience and another year of getting to know each other really helped us come together and form a good team,” he said. “It’s been fun.” 

The Cubs are a young group. At 27 years-old, Meyer was the oldest player in the lineup in the state-qualifying win over Stark. Every other starter in that game was 21-years-old or under — and every player except for one is from Courtland and is Courtland-born.

“We’re a very young team at the moment,” Meyer said. “But, we have a lot of college baseball experience from a lot of the guys. We’re, obviously, still fairly young and mistakes will happen. But, the older these guys get and the more mature they get the more successful they’re going to be.”

Courtland was 11-3 on the year in league play and 18-4 overall.

On the year, infielder/catcher/pitcher Nolan Drill leads the team in average, hits and home runs. Drill is batting a scorching .418 with 41 hits and 11 homers in 98 at-bats. His brother, Jaden Drill is hitting .349 in 63 at-bats. Jackson Bode leads the team in at-bats with 108 and is hitting .333 with just 11 strikeouts. Teddy Giefer is hitting .342 with four home runs and seven doubles in 79 at-bats. Also, Cade Bushard is hitting .344 in 96 at-bats, Maddox Mortenson is batting .354 in 82-at bats, and Carter Lange is hitting .314 in 51 at-bats.

However, Meyer said it is the Cubs’ pitching depth has been a key to the team’s success this season.

“The amount of guys we have with live arms has been very, very utilized,” Meyer said. “The young arms have been very successful with keeping guys off base.”

In the win over Stark, Bode threw seven innings of one-hit baseball and Jaden Drill closed it out, striking out four of the six batters he faced for the save. Jaden Drill is a heavyweight wrestler, finishing fifth at 285-pound Class AA state tournament in 2022 for New Ulm. 

“He’ a big grizzly bear-looking guy,” Meyer said. “He’s a big dude and he swings that bat well.”

In addition to pitching, having players with position flexibility has been a key to success, according to Meyer. 

“It’s been huge to have guys that can play multiple positions,” he said. “We’re still moving people around and having them play different positions. It takes an athletic person to do something like that. I think that’s been big — the amount of people we have that can play a different position and just go out and do it and play it well.” 

As one of 16 regional champions, Courtland earned a first-round bye and will face the winner of Union Hill versus Maple Lake on Friday, Aug. 25. The Cubs need to win four games to get to the championship held Monday, Sept. 4, at 1 p.m. at the Delano Municipal Ballpark in Delano. 

“With the guys we have right now, I really want to shoot for the moon,” Meyer said. “I’d love to go far in state. Right now, though, we need to take it one game at a time. This is a new experience for a lot of these guys. Everybody that makes it to the state tournament is going to be a very good opponent and it’s going to be about who shows up to play that day.”

Close-knit Mudhens put baseball on the map in Minneota 

The town of Minneota has seen its fair share of success on the sports field in recent years. For example, Minneota’s high school football team has eight state championships, its volleyball and girls basketball teams have each been in the state final the last five years — each winning multiple titles — and its wrestling team has seven state tournament appearances and one state championship to its name. 

However, the Minneota High School baseball team last made the state tournament in 1958 and it’s believed its townball team hadn’t reached state since 1936 — that is until this year. 

The Minneota Mudhens beat the Rosen Express 11-1, the Morris Eagles 3-0 and the Dumont Saints 7-0 to earn a trip to the Minnesota Baseball Association State Amateur Baseball Tournament. 

Current Mudhens player/manager Tyson Sonnenburg, 34, grew up in Minneota and played high school baseball for the high school team as well. 

He said he’s happy there’s a little baseball buzz in Minneota right now. 

“We just want to put baseball on the map a little bit,” Sonnenberg said. “It’s just cool to have a Minneota team represent at state — whether that’s in high school or amateur ball. That’s one thing we’re really excited about.”

Like Sonnenburg, every player on the team is from Minneota and none of the guys play college ball, which is unusual for a townball team. 

“We’re basically just Minneota graduates,” Sonnenberg said. “We’ve all known each other for a long time. Not every one of us lives there right now, but we’re all born and raised. It’s been kind of cool, too, doing it with your guys. It’s just guys who grew up in Minneota.” 

Keven Larsen just finished his 25th year as head varsity baseball coach at Minneota High School.

“We’re really excited about this as a town and as a program,” Larsen said about the 

Mudhens’ state tournament bid. “A lot of people around the state know us for football, basketball and wrestling. To make it in baseball is a big deal.”

Larsen has coached nearly all the players on the current Mudhens’ roster

“He coached us all the way through,” Sonnenberg said. “Even though we didn’t do it with him, we’re all his players and he’s definitely a part of it. He does a lot for the program on the field and off the field.”

Larsen said he feels this group was able to take things to the next level, because of the guys’ passion for the game and their commitment to it. 

“I know the majority of the guys fairly personally,” Larsen said. “I just know how they are toward the game and how they feel about the game. This is something they’ve had as a goal for years. For them to finally achieve it is just great.”

Both Sonnenberg and Larsen said the bond the guys on the team have with each other is likely a contributing factor to the Mudhens’ success on the field. 

“It’s kind of like a big family,” Larsen said. “They know each other and know each others’ families. They’ve grown up in Minneota for the most part and they just want to make the town and the program proud — which they have, for sure.”

The current Minneota Mudhens formed in 2009. Sonnenburg and Danny Hennen are the only two players from that original team still on the roster. Prior to 2009, there was quite a time where there wasn’t an amateur team in Minneota. A state tournament bracket from 1936 does exist that has the Minneota Indians participating. It’s unknown, exactly, what the Indians’ final season was.

“As far as we know, that’s the last time we were there,” Sonnenburg said. “It’s pretty awesome, though. We’ve definitely paid our dues over the seasons.”

Something special about amateur baseball is it allows for players of all ages to take the field together — from high schoolers through 30-somethings — or even older. 

Sonnenberg’s nephew Peyton Gillund, 18, has played with the team the last three seasons. Gillund just graduated high school this past year. He was 4 years-old when his uncle and the team re-formed as the Mudhens in 2009. But, now they’re on the field together as teammates. 

“That’s the difference between amateur baseball and high school,” Larsen said.”You have those situations where nephews and uncles or even brothers have the chance to play with each other. They all get along and are playing good baseball this summer.”

Minneota was 10-2 this year in the 13-team Land O’ Ducks league. They were second in the league in runs scored and second in runs allowed. 

“Offensively and defensively we were pretty consistent,” Sonnenberg said. “Our pitchers did really well, though.”

The Mudhens’ main arms this season include Danny Hennen and his brother Jacob Hennen, along with Ryan Dalager, who will be a senior at Minneota this fall. 

Sonnenberg said Danny Hennen is one of his best friends and they’re both in each others’ wedding later this year. The two graduated from Minneota one year apart. 

“He’s just been a horse for us for many years,” Sonnenberg said. “He’s mister consistent. He just pounds the zone, gets up throwing strikes. He’s definitely been the rock of the team. He never lets anything get to him. He just does his thing no matter the situation.”

At the plate, Alex Pohlen leads the team in hits, with 24, and average at .393. A.J. Myhre is second in hits with 23, batting .343. Austin Buysse, the team’s co-head coach, has 22 hits and is second on the Mudhens in batting average, at .373. Sonnenburg isn’t far behind at .370 on the year, while Danny Hennen leads the team in home runs with three. 

“We’re not an overpowering team by any means,” Sonnenberg said. “We don’t hit a lot of home runs. We just play good defense, our pitchers throw strikes and we do what we just need to do offensively.” 

Buysse has also starred outside the field of play. Back in 2019, he went viral for catching a home run ball then chugging a beer in the stands at the college world series. 

“Yeah, the catch and chug,” Sonnenburg said. “It was pretty awesome. I was right next to him when it happened. He was all over ESPN and everywhere. Buysse does a heck of a job with everything. He’s an awesome player and just a great guy.”

As one of 16 regional champions, Minneota earned a first-round bye and will face the winner of Elrosa versus Hadley on Friday, Aug. 25. The Mudhens need to win four games to get to the championship held Monday, Sept. 4, at 1 p.m.  at the Delano Municipal Ballpark in Delano.

“We’re excited to be there, but we want to put on a good show, too,” Sonnenburg said. “We’d love to win a game at state and we’d love to make a little run and see what happens. It’s baseball and anything can happen. You got to believe that and go in with that mentality at least.

“Minnesota does a great job with the state tournament and the way they put it together is just awesome. I don’t think anyone does it better. We’re just really, really excited to be a part of it finally.”

Sonnenberg said he and Danny Hennen have talked quite a bit about this being their last seasons with the Mudhens – but they aren’t ready to make that call quite yet. 

“It’s not confirmed, but we had talked about it and how we started together and it’d be cool to go out together,” Sonnenberg said. “If we do end up calling it quits after this year, it’d be a heck of a way to go out.”

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