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An unexpected trip for Sacred Heart baseball

The Sacred Heart baseball team celebrates after defeating Fosston in the Section 8A championship game Thursday at Bemidji State University. (Jillian Gandsey | Forum News Service)

With a veteran lineup back, including three returning all-conference selections, Brenden Bethke had high expectations entering the season. He thought a state tournament berth was a possibility.

"We had success last year,'' said Bethke, a junior at Sacred Heart High School. "We had everybody returning. We'd had a good offseason.''

That was in basketball. However, Sacred Heart was eliminated in the semifinal round of the West subsection playoffs.

Instead, it is baseball that is heading to the state tournament. Sacred Heart qualified for the Class A state tournament when it beat Fosston 3-1 in the Section 8A championship game last week. The Eagles play No. 1 seed Heritage Christian Academy (20-3) at 10 a.m. Thursday in Chaska in the state quarterfinals.

"A year ago, if I was asked which of our teams had the best chance of going to state, I would have said basketball,'' Brenden Bethke said. "But we kept grinding away (in baseball). We got hot at the end of the season. That's what you want to do.''

After going 4-12 last season, Sacred Heart is 15-5. The Eagles have won their past seven games, two of them by one run and two other wins by two-run margins.

"I knew we'd be better than last season,'' Eagles coach Paul Bethke said. "But I was thinking maybe next year that we'd have a shot at going to state.

"But the way we've been playing lately, I'm not surprised now that we're going. We've found ways to win.''

An example—the regular-season finale when Sacred Heart beat West Marshall 10-9. The Eagles led 6-1 after four innings, only to fall behind 9-7. But they scored three in the bottom of the seventh for the win.

"You could see in the kids' body language that they felt they had a chance to win,'' Paul Bethke said. "They were excited to get to bat. Playing in a close game wasn't bothering them any more.''

The Eagles' regular lineup includes two eighth-graders, Sam Gapp and Cullen Rohrich. That's something Paul Bethke has never seen in his eight seasons on the coaching staff. In addition, freshman Gage Wavra bats leadoff.

The strength of the team is the pitching trio of Brenden Bethke (7-2, 2.49 earned run average, 94 strikeouts in 56.1 innings), Evan Sczepanski (4-0, 2.26, 59 strikeouts in 34 innings) and Oscar Ortiz (2-1, 3.72, 28 strikeouts in 26.1 innings).

"Our kids are confident we'll get a well-pitched game, that they'll keep us in games,'' Paul Bethke said. "Brenden is the hardest thrower, but Evan isn't far behind. They've both had games with 15, 16 strikeouts.

"And Noah (Chine, senior catcher) has done a phenomenal job, both as a vocal leader and directing traffic on the field.''

Sacred Heart goes against a team whose lineup includes Seth Halvorsen, the Minnesota Gatorade player of the year who was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 30th round of the recent MLB amateur draft.

Sacred Heart at a glance

• Coach: Paul Bethke.

• Record: 15-5, Section 8A champion.

• State tournament opener: The unseeded Eagles play No. 1 seed Heritage Christian Academy (20-3) at 10 a.m. Thursday in the Class A state tournament quarterfinals at Chaska.

• Eagles regular lineup: Fr. Gage Wavra (.349, 1 HR, 22 runs, 8 SB), 8th-grader Cullen Rohrich (.163, 9 RBI), jr. Brenden Bethke (.283, 25 runs, 1 HR, 7 extra-base hits, 14 RBI, 13 SB), jr. Will Rohrich (.393, 2 HR, 25 RBI, 14 extra-base hits), jr. Evan Sczepanski (.269, 16 RBI, 9 SB), jr. Oscar Ortiz (.364, 11 RBI), 8th-grader Sam Gapp (.222), sr. Noah Chine (.185, 2 HR, 7 RBI), sr. Tanner Brundin (.262, 10 RBI).

• Leading pitchers: Bethke (7-2, 2.49 ERA, 94 Ks in 56.1 IP), Sczepanski (4-0, 2.26, 59 Ks in 34 IP), Ortiz (2-1, 3.72, 28 Ks in 26.1 IP).