MANDAN, ND (scsuhuskies.com) – St. Cloud State Baseball (32-18, 20-10 NSIC) earned the 2023 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Tournament Championship with a 13-7 win over archrival Minnesota State-Mankato (39-15, 25-8 NSIC) in a winner-take-all title game at BNC Field in Mandan, North Dakota on Sunday afternoon. Four Huskies – Tournament MVP Sam Riola, outfielder Mitchell Gumbko, catcher Kevin Butler and first baseman Ethan Navratil – were named to the All-Tournament Team while SCSU earned their fourth NSIC Tournament Championship and 23rd overall conference title. The Huskies earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and await their Regional destination, due to be released on Sunday evening.
In Sunday’s win, NSIC Tournament MVP and redshirt senior two-way player Sam Riola blasted his 36th career home run to break the program’s all-time mark.
The Huskies’ 2023 Tournament Championship joins the program’s NSIC Tournament titles earned in 2011, 2015 and 2016. SCSU is now 37-22 at the NSIC Tournament under head coach Pat Dolan and will be attending their 12th NCAA Regional overall and 10th under Dolan.
Quotables – St. Cloud State Baseball head coach Pat Dolan
“I like the way that sounds – Champions. We’ve been here a lot, this is the fourth time we’ve won it. We’re 7-6 here against Mankato – any time you play Mankato, Augie, rarely do you have a game like this, but I’m just so happy and proud for these guys. Especially our seniors – we haven’t won one of these in seven, eight years and haven’t made a regional in four years so it’s good to get both of those checked off. We’re going to enjoy this for a day or two then make a big run in the regional.”
On the incredible run at the conference tournament… “They’re a bunch of grinders. Any coach is going to say that. Everybody goes through injuries, but when you look at what we’ve had to go through – All-Conference catcher in Drew Bulson goes out and then Kevin Butler goes out and is All-Tournament team, our cleanup hitter Tyler Schiller is out and Mitchell Gumbko wins All-Tournament team. Drew Beier has been phenomenal on the mound for us all year, but the way he played third base for us today when Tate Wallat went out…so many guys who weren’t in the lineup in February making big contributions – Brayden Jacobson, Ben Clapp. We told the guys, ‘It’s going to take every single one of you.’ And I think every guy in this dugout played a huge role on and off the field.”
On Riley Ahern and Payton VanBeck’s strong efforts… “Riley’s elbow is barking. He used to be 89-92, now he’s a totally different pitcher who just knows how to pitch with great offspeed and a good breaking ball. He competes, throws strikes. Then VanBeck – he’s one of our top six, seven guys, but we just haven’t had an opportunity to use him as much as we’d like to this season with leverage spots. He’s just a competitor. Cooper Avery’s been throwing great as well.”
On seeing the fanbase rally around SCSU during the Tournament… “It started way before me – Skip Lorsung is Mr. Husky, he’s helped us out any time I’ve asked for a favor, all his alumni from the 80s and 90s…our alumni and fans do so much for the program. I just looked at my phone and I had 162 texts in the last 15 minutes, and the majority of those are from alumni. This is for them, too – they set the tone and built the foundation. Now it’s time to get to that next level – win the region, win the Super Regional… We have the team. We’ve got the pitching, and if we play like this the rest of the way we can make some noise whenever and wherever we play. We’re just happy that we’re still playing.”
Game One – Minnesota State-Mankato 6, St. Cloud State 5
St. Cloud State opened Championship Sunday by dropping a bitter, hotly-contested 6-5 loss to the Mavericks. Ethan Navratil (1-for-3, BB, 2 R, HR, 3 RBI) continued his tremendous tournament by driving in three while Sam Riola (2-for-3, BB, R, RBI, SF, SB) added a multi-hit game.
Lefthander Jack Habeck threw well for the Huskies, taking a no-decision after exiting in line for the win with 5.0 innings of four-run ball. The junior bounced back from a Maverick three-spot in the first, scattering eight hits and three walks over his five frames while striking out a pair.
The Huskies began working on their 3-0 deficit in the third as Mitchell Gumbko (1-for-4, R, 2B) led off with a double, advanced to third on a John Nett (1-for-5, 2B) groundout then scored courtesy of a Riola sacrifice fly. SCSU trimmed it to a one-run game an inning later as Navratil walked and later scored on a Tate Wallat (0-for-2, RBI) fielder’s choice.
Minnesota State-Mankato pushed their lead back to two with a run in the home half, setting the stage for more Navratil heroics in the fifth. After Riola singled and Ben Clapp (1-for-3, HBP, R) was hit by a pitch, the sophomore first baseman came to the plate with two outs. Despite opening a base with a wild pitch, the Mavericks chose to pitch to the slugger – a decision that backfired quickly as Navratil launched a no-doubt three-run home run out to deep right field.
SCSU’s bats were quieted the rest of the way as Mankato plated a pair of unearned runs in the seventh and leaned on ace Nathan Cully to close things out. Drew Beier took a hard-luck loss in relief despite throwing extremely well, allowing the two unearned runs over 3.0 innings of work on three hits and a walk, striking out two.
Game Two – St. Cloud State 13, Minnesota State-Mankato 7
Faced with a winner-take-all second game on Championship Sunday, the Huskies turned to graduate righthander Riley Ahern on three days’ rest after throwing five strong in the Tournament opener on Wednesday. Ahern was handed the lead before taking the hill as John Nett (3-for-6, 3 R, 2 RBI) led off the game with single and later scored on an Ethan Navratil (1-for-6, R, 2B, 2 RBI) fielder’s choice.
The Huskies’ bulldog righthander retired all seven men he faced – allowing a lone runner on a wild pitch third strike – while punching out five across 2.0 innings of work. After a medical check on Ahern late in the second, St. Cloud State’s lineup picked up their righthander and made the decision to pull him easy with a seven spot in the third.
Sawyer Smith (4-for-5, BB, R, RBI) opened the wild third inning with the first of his four hits followed by a Ben Clapp (2-for-4, BB, R) single, an RBI double off the bat of Navratil and an RBI single from Brayden Jacobson (1-for-4, HBP, R, RBI). Minnesota State put away the next two batters before Mitchell Gumbko (0-for-3, BB, HBP, 2 R, SB) drew a walk to fill the bases with two down. Nett grounded a ball to short that appeared to have the inning wrapped up, but the Maverick shortstop chose to race Gumbko to the second base bag. Gumbko turned on the jets and slid in safely, allowing a run to score and extending the frame. Sam Riola (2-for-6, 2 R, HR, 5 RBI) made it hurt with a two-run single laced into center, then Smith punctuated the inning with an RBI single up the middle that was mishandled, allowing a second run to score and extending the SCSU lead to 8-0.
Payton VanBeck took over in the home half of the third and provided the Huskies with exceptional relief, earning the win with 4.1 innings of three-run ball. The southpaw struck out one while scattering five hits and a walk, relying on his defense to work behind him and cruising through key innings.
A one-out Drew Beier (2-for-5, R, 2 2B) double in the fourth was followed by a Kevin Butler (3-for-4, R, RBI, SAC) RBI single to add an insurance run for VanBeck. Minnesota State finally scratched one across in the sixth – a run that the Huskies would respond to with three in the next half. Butler singled to right then Gumbko reached on an error by the third baseman, bringing Nett back to the plate with one on and none retired. The SCSU centerfielder singled in a run as Minnesota State recorded an out on the bases, then Riola clobbered a two-run home run out to left – his 36th career blast in a Huskies uniform, breaking the program’s all-time record.
Riola plated the final Huskies run in the ninth with a fielder’s choice as Grady Fuchs, Cooper Avery and David Van Ort finished things off behind VanBeck.