By PATRICK SLACK
The early path to Tuesday’s top-five showdown converged from widely varied directions.
Second-ranked St. Cloud Cathedral entered with a 10-0 record fueled by an overwhelming array of dominant arms, giving up just seven runs all season.
Fifth-ranked Little Falls, on the other hand, had mashed opposing staffs with 39 runs to cruise through its first four games.
Both teams gave in a bit in the doubleheader feature at Little Falls, with Cathedral taking the first game 6-1 before the Flyers salvaged a split with a 3-1 victory in the finale.
Little Falls ran into the cream of Cathedral’s crop of aces in the opener, squaring off against junior left-hander Jeff Fasching.
The Flyers wriggled out a pair of early jams to keep the game scoreless with stellar defensive play, including an outfield assist by senior Nathan Masog to peg a runner attempting to score.
But the Crusaders broke through with two runs in the third, then put the game out of reach with another run in the fifth and three more in the sixth.
The Flyers made things interesting in the bottom of the seventh, knocking Fasching out of the game and putting the tying run in the on-deck circle, but Cathedral kept him there, holding on for the win.
“Jeff Fasching is a tremendous pitcher, as evidenced by the Gopher coach in the stands watching him,” Little Falls head coach Chad Kaddatz said. “He mixes his pitches well and was consistently able to keep us in pitcher’s counts where we were off-balance and couldn’t just sit on one pitch.”
“As good as he was, we were able to battle him through the game. He did strike out five in 6 1/3 innings, but I think if we were a little more aggressive early in the count we could have stayed out of those situations.”
After a short break, the Flyers set out to shake off their first loss of the season and return the favor to the Crusaders, tabbing senior Josh Wenzel for the key start.
And Wenzel delivered.
Coming off back-to-back four-hit games five days prior, Wenzel demonstrated his versatility with a complete-game three-hitter, enabling a three-run fourth inning to stand up for the Flyers.
In the pivotal fourth, senior Gabe Ploof drew a leadoff walk before senior Collin Eckman drilled a double, the only extra-base hit on the night for either side.
Cathedral recorded the first out on a grounder back to the mound before senior Matt Stumpf put the Flyers on the board with an RBI infield single.
With runners at the corners, Little Falls put Stumpf in motion from first.
As the throw sailed high to second, Eckman took off from third, swiping home on the back end of a double steal to make it 2-0, with Stumpf coming around to score later on a two-out error.
“I don’t know that it caught them off guard, but Eckman made a fantastic read on the play and that play alone really swung the momentum to our side,” Kaddatz said. “They are a veteran team and have been in a lot of big time situations, but I think when you can score like that it can unnerve you a bit and often lead to more runs scoring.”
Cathedral cut the gap to 3-1 in the fifth, but stranded the potential tying runs in scoring position and failed to get any closer in its final two at bats.
“It took us a while to regroup and get mentally where we wanted to be,” Kaddatz said. “I think Cathedral stunned us a bit in the first game and we did not ‘flush it’ and keep our focus on the next inning and pitch. Once the game started and we got through the first inning, especially with Wenzel striking out the first two batters, we were mentally back in the flow of the game.”
Stumpf went 2-for-3 in both games for the Flyers, with sophomore Bryce Zawatzke finishing the night with three hits.
Junior Kyle Boser reached base three times via walks in the first game.
“Josh came out in game two and gave us exactly what we needed: a shutdown performance,” Kaddatz said. “We talk about big-time players being at their absolute best when their absolute best is needed, and that was a perfect example.”
“Josh does a great job of throwing strikes, which is the number one goal of all our pitchers,” he said. “The other stats will take care of themselves as long as we focus on throwing strikes.”
St. Cloud Cathedral 6 10 2
Little Falls 1 4 1
Little Falls—Matt Stumpf: 2-3, R; Collin Eckman: 1-3; Bryce Zawatzke: 1-3; Kyle Boser: 0-0, 3-BB.
Little Falls 3 5 1
St. Cloud Cathedral 1 3 1
Little Falls—Matt Stumpf: 2-3, R, RBI, SB; Bryce Zawatzke: 2-3; Collin Eckman: 1-3, 2B, R, SB; WP-Josh Wenzel: 7-IP, 3-H, 1-R, 1-ER, 2-BB, 7-K.