In the span of four days, a promising regular season capped by a third-place finish in the Big 9 Conference morphed into a campaign ended by back-to-back playoff losses against lower-seeded opponents.
On Tuesday night at Sechler Park, the second-seeded Northfield baseball team lost 10-0 against third-seeded Lakeville South in a Section 1-4A elimination game after the Raiders faltered 4-2 against seventh-seeded Rochester Mayo three days earlier.
“We kept improving and getting hot I thought at the right time, and then we ran into two really good teams at playoff time,” Northfield coach Mark Auge said. “They had 15 hits and they were all pretty good hits. That’s a good team.”
The Cougars played the role of favorite early on in Tuesday’s contest. In the top of the first, Lakeville South loaded the bases, but ultimately didn’t score when Northfield starting pitcher Joey Malecha, a junior, notched an inning-ending strikeout.
Two innings later, however, Lakeville South pounced with a two-RBI double and a two-run home run to gain a 4-0 advantage it never surrendered. The Cougars added four more runs in the fourth inning against senior relief pitcher Ryan Bell, who pitched a scoreless fifth before junior Nolan Stepka tossed a scoreless sixth but allowed a pair of runs in the seventh.
Those extra tallies were superfluous, thanks to Lakeville South pitcher Justin Loer, who pitched a complete-game shutout while allowing only three hits and striking out 10 batters.
Senior Blake Mellgren doubled to lead off the bottom of the second for the Raiders, but he was doubled off when a sacrifice bunt attempt was popped in the air back to Loer, who quickly spun and fired to second before Mellgren had a chance to retreat.
Senior Cole Stanchina laced a double in the bottom of the fourth, but that two-bagger came with two outs and he was stranded in scoring position. Mellgren added his second double of the evening with one out in the bottom of the seventh, but he was also left on second base to end the game.
Mellgren, Stanchina and Bell are all part of a 11-player senior class that also includes Ethan Lanthier, Gunnar Benson, Tyler Nelson, Thomas Rice, Johann Rodriguez Vazquez, Tyler Snyder, Adam Viskocil and Oliver Blundred.
“These guys have played together for a long time and they just love baseball,” Auge said. “A lot of them are on like three different teams this summer. We just try to remind them of the good times, but unfortunately the loss is what they think about right now.”
The 14-7 record that group finishes with is the best winning percentage posted by a Northfield baseball team since 2016, when the Raiders finished with a combined 22-6 mark and a fifth-place finish at the Class AAA state tournament.
“A really talented group of guys,” Auge said. “They worked hard and that’s what we talked about. It’s important to set that example to the younger guys. You think about the good times we had this season with a 14-7 record with exciting games and well-played games.”
Northfield is set to return five starters from Tuesday’s game in Malecha, Stepka, junior Tate Journell, junior Coledon Rataj and junior Ian Stanton.