At every level of youth baseball, there are elimination games – tests when you either win or go home.
In a must-win situation in the sub-state American Legion tournament at Big Willow Park July 25, Hopkins coach Todd Jahnke called on his ace, Robbie Palkert, to keep the Flyers’ championship hopes alive.
Hopkins had won 3-2 against Eagan in the first round, thanks to a game-winning hit by catcher Max Weesner and four innings of scoreless relief pitching from Josh Gallop, who recorded the win. In the second round, however, the Flyers ran into a roadblock and fell to Wayzata 7-3.
“We made some mistakes against Wayzata that led to unearned runs,” said Jahnke.
A loss to Minneapolis Southwest would have ended Hopkins’ season. Instead, Palkert went out and earned Hopkins’ 20th victory of the season with a two-hit shutout.
“It was a ton of fun today,” said Palkert after the game. “I woke up smiling today, and the sun came out the same time I got to the ball park.”
Jahnke didn’t give Palkert a pep talk before the game.
“Trust your stuff,” was all that he said.
That stuff was very fast and very good, as Palkert was in complete control. His teammates did the job with the bats in a 10-0 win.
“It was nice to know we could come back and put 10 runs on the board after losing a tough game the day before,” said Palkert. “Our teamwork has been phenomenal this summer. We’re a tight-knit group, and a lot of times we will hang around together after the games.”
Palkert likes being part of a deep Hopkins pitching staff that also features Gallop, Logan Athmann, Robert Dworsky and Lukas Jorgensen. All but Dworsky played on the Hopkins High this spring. Dworsky was busy leading Blake School to the state tournament and made the All-State team in Class AA.
Jahnke said he looks forward to coaching Palkert again next summer.
“Robbie dominated in his start against Southwest,” the coach noted. “He is capable of doing that virtually every time out. He has good run and a good sink on his fastball.”
In the opening 3-2 victory over Eagan, Jahnke was pleased with both of his pitchers. Jorgensen started and held the Flyers in the game for five innings. Gallop pitched well in his relief stint, allowing only two hits over four innings.
“We found a way to get the job done,” said Jahnke. “We needed one run in the seventh to tie, and then we scored the winning run on Max Weesner’s hit in the bottom of the eighth. Max had a good day offensively and defensively. He threw out a couple of base runners.
“Eagan’s pitcher [Jack Conway] had a good game, scattering eight hits. We hit a lot of balls right at guys.”
After Palkert’s win kept Hopkins alive in sub-state play, the Flyers had the formidable task of facing the state’s No. 1-ranked team, Excelsior, in the next round.
Excelsior won the game 11-0 and then went on to beat Wayzata 8-1 in the championship game.
“This year, the sub-state came down to Excelsior, and then Wayzata and Hopkins, and then everyone else,” said Jahnke. “In the 11 years I have coached Legion baseball, Excelsior is one of the best teams I’ve seen. It is a lot like the Eden Prairie team that won the Legion World Series in 2011. Excelsior plays the game the right way and has no apparent weaknesses. Trying to sneak out a win against them is very difficult.”
The loss to Excelsior ended a 21-9-1 season for the Flyers. Jahnke has had ten 20-win seasons in 11 years as the Flyers’ head coach.
“We had eight seniors this year, and they’re a very good group of young men,” said Jahnke. “I know they will go on to bigger and better things in the coming years. They’re all going to college, and some of them will continue to play ball.”
Jahnke praised the commitment all of his players made this summer.
“They gave up some other things to play Legion ball,” he said. “And when it was all over after the Excelsior game, there were some tears. They had a lot of fun together, and they bought into what we needed to do on the field.”
After the Excelsior game, Josh Gallop and his dad Jon were the last two people at the ball park. Josh’s career began at Big Willow, and Jon coached him until he reached the varsity and Legion levels.
Josh wanted to stand by the fence and drink it all in one last time. Finally, his dad said, “Let’s go to Dairy Queen.”
Josh smiled because that’s the same thing his dad said at the end of a long day of baseball when he was 10 years old.
Contact John Sherman at email@example.com