My year with the Monarchs

It started on my birthday, Feb. 17.
I was having a hangover lunch with the lady friend, my dad and his wife at Buffalo Wild Wings when I got this text.

image


Six months later, it ended with this.

image

I could write at length about our season and everything that went into capturing the 16th state title in Monarchs history (and eighth since 2001), but I don’t want to give my team any more pub or that kid from the Saints will never stop complaining.

What I will say is that the state tournament continues to be maybe my favorite weekend of the year. I made it out to the Birdcage every night but one after we got back from Rapid City, and the crowds were pretty good (a few of the night crowds were much bigger than any crowd that could fit into Cadwell in Mitchell). The baseball was excellent (Colman vs. Dimock-Emery was the the best game of the tourney, at least until the finals).

For the second straight year, the Monarchs jumped out to a six-run lead against the Sioux Falls Brewers, and again the Brewers rallied, but this time their rally fell short, and Renner survived 8-5.

When Brian McGuire fielded a ground ball and fired to Erik DeJong for the final out, I kind of blacked out for a minute or two. I don’t remember racing onto the field, or jumping on the pile, I just briefly remember worrying that Dallas Schniederman might die when Juan Thomas jumped on the pile (no really, he did).
It was a pretty awesome moment.

The game got chippy a couple times, but what people watching the game probably don’t realize is that part of the reason things got so testy is because of how well both teams know each other. We’ve played each other in each of the last four title games — with each team winning two. We played four times this season. Many of us have been teammates with guys on the other side before.
When you know your opponent that well, it’s almost that much easier to get in a fight with them because you know it’ll blow over.
After the game the Brewers were classy in defeat, and the animosity from the 8th inning fireworks had already subsided.

I haven’t been bashful about talking up how good my team is this summer, but it kind of dawned on me during the game just how good the Brewers are, too. They can really hit. They were better defensively during this tournament than we were. Bryce Ahrendt gave a gutty effort on the mound, as did Zach Danelson in relief.
If there’s anything I’m most proud of from the Monarchs season it’s that we went 4-0 against the Brewers. 9-8, 4-1, 9-4 and 8-5, and each of those last three were closer than the score would indicate.
You always hear how hard it is to beat the same team three times in one season, and we had to do it four times, against a damn good team. Honestly, that fact had me nervous as hell going into Sunday.
But with Derek Ohme on the mound I was feeling pretty good, and Ohme gave a vintage performance.
He worked seven innings, allowing just one earned run, his fastball never topping 76-mph.
With the win, the guy I once called an ‘unintimidating soft-tosser’ (a label that has jokingly stuck with Ohme ever since) improved to 14-0 as a starter in state tournament play.
He says he’s retiring and he seems pretty serious about it. If that proves to be the case, I’m glad I got to be there for his final start.

There’s no sense in me ignoring the fact that the Monarchs would have won the championship without me this season, and I only got one plate appearance in the entire state tournament (which, honestly, was all I was hoping for).
For the season, I appeared in 14 of our 25 games, and made 28 plate appearances. My hope before the season was that I would get an average of at least one plate appearance for every game we played.
But I never felt like I was wasting my time, or that I wasn’t part of the team. I attended every game but one, and when I wasn’t in the lineup, I tried to find any way I could to be part of the action, whether that was coaching first or third base, warming up a pitcher in the bullpen or just taking infield with the starters before each game.
And manager Kevin Knetsch never missed an opportunity to get me in the game when one arose. I appreciated that, and thanked him for it Sunday.

image

Sometimes it was hard to sit and watch, especially against pitchers I knew I could hit, especially when another guy might’ve been struggling, but I’ve been in Kevin’s shoes before, and managing an amateur team isn’t easy. You can’t please everyone, and it’s difficult to find people who are willing to come to the ballpark without the promise of playing time. I wanted to make sure Kevin knew he could count on me to be there no matter what.

Because I’ve got to tell you, getting the chance to be on a team that won the whole thing is a big deal to me. It was never really something I thought of early in my ‘career’. I didn’t start playing amateur ball with the idea of someday winning a state championship. But after winning a total of, I don’t know, probably 15-20 games or so in my first seven seasons as an amateur player, the losing started to wear on me. Just making my first state tournament, with the Renner Roadrunners, was a big deal to me, but after making five straight tournaments and never reaching the title game, I started to really wish that someday I could be a part of it, especially having gotten so close to some of the guys on the Monarchs and seeing what it was like for them.

And all season long, I was consistently surprised and appreciative of how quickly and completely the guys accepted me. I was already friends with a lot of them, but some I didn’t know or barely knew.
Plus, I was the only guy in the dugout who didn’t play college baseball, and on top of that, of course, I’m a sportswriter, an enemy to many dugouts and locker rooms.
On a team of lesser guys, either of those things could’ve been an issue. It never was with the Monarchs.

In fact, after we won, I was taken aback — moved, even — by how many guys came up to me and told me how happy they were for me. Most of the guys on this team have won multiple state championships — Mike Clapp now has eight, McGuire and Ohme each have seven — and it felt like a couple of them got as much out of seeing me get to experience winning as they did winning another one for themselves. That means a lot to me.
I won’t get all gooey and repeat any of the things that were said as we celebrated on the field (and well, well into the night and following morning), but I got a little choked up more than once.

When I got that text from Kevin back in February, the answer was ‘yes’ right away, but I was still a tad apprehensive. I didn’t want to be put in a position where I would be in over my head, as I hadn’t played in a year and had struggled mightily the last year that I did play.
But being on this team made me better, and I think I carried my weight. I hit .333 with a .429 on-base percentage (pretty good numbers, but actually below average on a team that averages 10 runs per game).

All of which is a long way of saying this summer was seriously a blast. I had high expectations for it to be both successful and fun, and it far, far exceeded those expectations. I feel extremely lucky to have been a part of it. I wish more people got to experience something similar. And while I admit this is the mother of all cliches, it’s not going to be the games I’ll remember. It’ll be the road trips, dugout banter, post-game beers, etc., that we’ll all remember.

image
(Championship Sunday heroes Dallas Schneiderman, Erik DeJong and Brian McGuire. Of all the pictures I took Sunday night this was the only one I felt comfortable posting)

One reason I love going to the amateur tournament every year, whether it’s in Sioux Falls or Mitchell, is that when you’re there, you’re definitely among friends. Sure, there are a lot of players that just do it for a couple years while they’re in their 20s, but there are also an awful lot of guys that are lifers.
The Rick Webers and the Billy McMackens, yes, but plenty of other guys who aren’t Hall of Famers, but who just can’t quit the game. There’s always someone to talk to at the amateur tourney. Someone who knows the teams and players and stories as well as you do.
If you love the game and love being around it, it can become a big part of your life.
The Renner Monarchs are a collection of guys who are all like that. And I’m really happy I’m a part of it. I can’t wait for next season.

image
Back row: Derek Ohme, Jason Nyhus, Tim Huber, Brian McGuire, Dallas Schneiderman, Juan Thomas, Bubba May, Sam Gotham, Matt Wilber, Erik DeJong, Kevin Knetsch
Front Row: Trevor Hurley, Matt Guiliano, Grant Hieb, Matt Zimmer, Bryan Nikkel, Nate Hewes, Chaz Palmer, Darren Terveen, Ben Reznicek.