Panthers complete mission with state trip

When Chris Bruhn, Brandon Gartner and Doug Haas joined the varsity as sophomores, their goal was to help the Park Rapids baseball team qualify for the state Class AA tournament.

When Chris Bruhn, Brandon Gartner and Doug Haas joined the varsity as sophomores, their goal was to help the Park Rapids baseball team qualify for the state Class AA tournament.

Three years later, that dream has come true.

Those three seniors were instrumental in leading the Panthers to their first state tournament since 1986. Bruhn went 3-0 with a save and drove in three runs, Gartner picked up a win and Haas had three RBI as the Panthers defeated Pequot Lakes 5-0, Perham (the state's No. 1-ranked team) 5-3, Bagley 3-2 and Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton 7-5 in four playoff games to win the Section 8AA title.

"We've had the same goal for the last three years," said Bruhn. "It took us awhile, but we got there."

"We knew we had a good team," said Haas. "I've always wanted to go to state in something. It feels awesome."


"I've waited a long time for this," said Gartner. "This was our goal since the beginning of the season."

"We have a meeting every year and our No. 1 goal is to win the section championship," said junior Tom Juberian. "It's pretty exciting."

"We made a goal at the beginning of the year to go to state and we reached that goal," said junior Grant Dierkhising. "It's a huge achievement to go to state."

The Panthers were focused on attaining a trip to state all season. A 5-2 loss to Pequot Lakes, two losses to Perham (4-0 and 10-6 in 10 innings) and a 9-8 loss to D-G-F in which the team committed seven errors were the only blemishes on a 16-4 regular season. That record helped give Park Rapids the No. 5 ranking in the final state Class AA poll.

Defeating Perham for the first time in their last three playoff appearances gave the Panthers the confidence they needed to win the section title.

"We've always had a tough time beating Perham," said Haas. "We knew once we beat Perham that we could beat anybody. We didn't play our best (against Bagley and D-G-F), but we found a way to win."

"Beating Perham was a huge win," said Gartner. "That gave us all the confidence we needed. We took that all the way in."

"Beating the No. 1 team in the state gave us all the confidence in the world," said Bruhn. "We may have overlooked Bagley, but once we got by them we knew we were going to beat D-G-F."


"We knew after that (the win over Perham) that everyone was looking at us as the team to beat," said Juberian. "We knew there was nobody better than us. That gave us the confidence that we could beat anyone here."

"It's always been hard to get past Perham," said junior Zach Lehrke. "That gave us a lot of confidence. We knew that if we could beat them, we could beat anybody."

The combination of solid pitching and timely hitting led the Panthers to state.

As a team, the Panthers carried a .300 batting average into Thursday's first round of the state tournament. Park Rapids averaged 6.9 runs a game while stealing 71 bases in 78 attempts. Of their 199 hits, 62 (45 doubles, five triples and 12 home runs) went for extra bases.

The pitching staff entered the state tournament with a team ERA of 1.94, allowing only 46 earned runs while recording 138 strikeouts compared to 70 walks.

Leading the Panthers offensively this season were junior Curtis Tolle (.258 average, 18 runs, nine RBI, seven stolen bases), Juberian (.378 average, 30 runs, 25 RBI, eight homers, eight stolen bases), Dierkhising (.349 average, 16 runs, 19 RBI, nine stolen bases), Lehrke (.305 average, 19 runs, 13 RBI, 12 stolen bases), Bruhn (.313 average, 21 runs, 21 RBI, seven stolen bases), junior Eli Donatelle (.411 average, 13 runs, nine RBI, four stolen bases), Gartner (.167 average, 11 runs, five RBI, six stolen bases), junior Kyle Blanchard (.288 average, 11 runs, 12 RBI), sophomore Dylan Walsh (.278 average, two runs, three RBI) and Haas (.271 average, 10 runs, 13 RBI, eight stolen bases).

Also playing key roles offensively were sophomores Cody Boterman (.214 average, three runs, three RBI, three stolen bases), Justin Peterson (.250 average, seven runs, six RBI, two stolen bases) and Kevin Vaadeland (.167 average, four runs, four RBI, three stolen bases).

Leading the pitching staff were Bruhn (7-1 record, 2.00 ERA, 52 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings), Gartner (5-1 record, 1.58 ERA, 25 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings), Donatelle (4-1 record, 1.78 ERA, 12 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings), Dierkhising (3-0 record, 1.98 ERA, 18 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings) and Lehrke (0-0 record, 3.36 ERA, 13 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings).


Defensively, the Panthers featured Lehrke behind the plate; Dierkhising at third; Juberian at short; Walsh or Boterman at second; Bruhn, Gartner and sophomore Blake Olson at first; Tolle in left; Haas in center; and Donatelle, Peterson and Vaadeland in right. Blanchard served as the designated hitter.

Rounding out the state roster are sophomore Cody Schirmers and freshman Kevin McMorrow.

Even though the Panthers fulfilled their main goal, the players weren't satisfied with just qualifying for state.

"I'm hoping for the best," said Bruhn. "We beat the No. 1 team in the state, so the sky's the limit."

"Beating Perham gives us a lot of confidence," said Dierkhising. "We know that if we beat them, we can go a long ways. With our pitching, anything can happen. We need to come to play."

"We're looking to win our first game," said Juberian. "If we can beat the No. 1 team in the state, we can beat anybody."

"We hope to keep it rolling," said Lehrke. "We just have to keep doing the same stuff. We'll take it one game at a time and see how far we can go."

"I knew we'd be pretty good, but I didn't expect a 20-plus win season, "said Donatelle. "It depends on how we hit, but I think we have a shot. I like our chances. I'm ready to get it going."


"People on the Internet are saying Park Rapids is going to get beat in the first round. They may think we're an underdog, but we're ready to show people what we can do," said Blanchard. "We can compete with any team down there. I think we're going to do some damage."

"We're shooting for a state championship," said Gartner. "We'll take it one game at a time and hope we stay on a roll."

"It's pretty exciting," said Tolle. "Every team down there is good, so we're going to have to go down there with confidence, play our best ball and have fun at the same time. It's been 21 years (since the last time Park Rapids qualified for state), so it's our time to shine. We need three more wins. I can taste a state championship."

Unfortunately the perfect ending to a memorable season didn't materialize as Glencoe-Silver Lake defeated the Panthers 7-1 in Thursday's quarterfinals at St. Cloud.

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