For a team making back-to-back trips to the state tournament, the word "first" can be used an awful lot when talking about Marshall VFW Blue.
Under first-year head coach Chace Pollock, making his first trip to a state tournament as a coach, Marshall Blue will face Maple Grove for the first time this season while all but four players join Pollock in making their first appearance at the state tournament.
All that novelty could pose as a distraction for some teams, but Pollock said he and his players are taking advantage of the opportunity to see some new teams when the 2013 Minnesota State VFW Tournament opens on Thursday in Ely.
Independent file photo
Marshall Blue’s Dylan Criquet-Danielson connects with a pitch against Pipestone on July 20.
"It's kind of nice coming from our district, where we play a lot of the same teams over and over," Pollock said. "It's nice to go up there and see some fresh teams you haven't seen before in the past. That's what the state tournament is all about."
Of the nine other team's in the field, including opening-round opponent Maple Grove, Marshall Blue is only familiar with Alexandria, and even then Blue has not had a chance to test itself against them on the diamond.
"We've seen Alex a lot, but we haven't matched up with them at all," Pollock said. "The other teams in the bracket we haven't seen or heard from a lot. We've seen a couple team's from Maple Grove's district, but not them."
First pitch between Marshall and Maple Grove is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Thursday at Veteran's Memorial Field in Ely and will conclude a 10-day layoff between games for Blue. Marshall last played on July 28, defeating Pipestone 5-1 in Luverne to clinch a spot in Ely.
Pollock said that both he and the players are anxious to get the tournament started, while a few practices and a scrimmage with the Marshall Legion team has helped keep the rust away.
"We'll have practiced four times in those 10 days, but I gave them the weekends off. We scrimmaged the Legion team Thursday," Pollock said. "Some of those guys wanted to scrimmage, so we scrimmaged and we got to see some Legion arms. That helped keep us fresh a little bit, but I'm not too worried about the layoff. I'm just excited to get up there and have some fun playing ball and see some fresh teams that you haven't see before, and hopefully give it a run."
Marshall Blue already has made one post-season run this summer, going 4-0 in the District 3 tournament and defeating No. 1-seed Pipestone twice.
Critical to that unblemished record in the playoffs, and the impressive regular season, was the play of their four returning members from the 2012 state tournament team.
Drew Hmielewski, Nate Hoeft, Noah Winkelman and Conner Winkelman have all provided leadership on and off the field during the summer, which Pollock said is imperative to any team hoping to make a run in the playoffs.
"Any team, whether it's VFW or high school, any sport that you're involved with, you need kids that have experience and have been through some things to help those younger kids come through," Pollock said. "Whether it's seniors in high school ball helping some of the underclassmen, or these four guys that have been through this before and been to a state tournament before. They're definitely excited about the opportunity, but I know they're ready to play ball and have a good showing this year. They're all great kids and have been great assets to our team."
Another asset for Pollock has been assistant coach Matt Suby, the man in charge of Marshall Blue prior to Pollock, leading the team to several state tournament berths.
"Matt does a great job with the kids and he's a great assistant coach to have along," Pollock said. "He's definitely helped us along the way with some of the little things and some of the paperwork too, knowing the league and the district and what to expect here and there. He's definitely a valuable asset to our team."
If Marshall is to extend its season into Sunday, it will need to combine all of its experience and enthusiasm with some quality pitching. In the double-elimination tournament, Marshall could play as many as eight games over four days, with no more than two taking place on any given day.
"We need to just stay healthy and hope that we get some good pitching performances," Pollock said. "The weekend could get long. It could be Wednesday to Sunday. If we can get some good pitching performances out of our guys, that will really help our arms for the weekend. We've had enough experience and enough sample size that hopefully we'll be OK in that department."
International Falls and Hutchinson open the tournament at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, while all teams were invited to a banquet tonight.
Along with Ely, games will also take place at Legion Field in Soudan.
The full field consists of: Marshall Blue, Maple Grove, International Falls, Hutchinson, Ely, Alexandria, Brainerd, St. Paul Ranview, Northfield and Perham.