The Brainerd VFW baseball team has lived and breathed baseball five days a week this summer.
The result of that dedication has been a 34-win season and a second consecutive trip to the state tournament, which runs Friday through Monday at Alexandria.
Brainerd (34-12 overall) will face White Bear Lake 1:30 p.m. Friday at Carlos. Last year's champion, Mankato, will not be back to defend its title.
Brainerd VFW coach Joel Lofstrom directed practice Wednesday at Central Lakes College field. Brainerd will take on White Bear Lake 1:30 p.m. Friday at Alexandria in the state tournament. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist
"We played two or three days a week, then practiced the other one or two days and had weekends off," Brainerd coach Joel Lofstrom said. "We really try to get those two practice days in a week. That has really made the difference for us."
This is the fourth time in Lofstrom's six years of coaching that he's guided a team to state and the first time in recent memory a Brainerd VFW team has gone to state in consecutive years.
"We haven't had two groups in a row go to state," said Lofstrom. "Our goal is to always go to state. We wanted to do this two years in a row and we were lucky enough to accomplish that."
Lofstrom doesn't plan to have his team work on anything new before its first state tournament game. Instead, Brainerd players will concentrate on the fundamentals.
"Going into the state tournament we'll work on our defense," Lofstrom said, "but we'll also work on the little things like bunts, steals and first and third plays. The basic things, that when you're under pressure you tend to make mistakes on. We'll also try to hit as much as we can."
Hitting and scoring runs hasn't been much of a problem for Brainerd. In the district tournament last week, Brainerd scored 60 runs in five games, including 21 runs in one game against eventual runner-up Cold Spring to force a second game for the title.
Lofstrom said his team's lineup can pose problems for opposing pitchers with a team batting average of better than .300.
"We're getting on base and doing a nice job of that," Lofstrom said. "Lately, we've been moving guys over and putting together some big innings. We've also gotten better at putting the ball in play and putting pressure on the defense."
Brainerd VFW player Morgan Impola scooped up a ground ball and threw to first base during practice Wednesday at the Central Lakes College field. Brainerd will play in its second consecutive state VFW state tournament this weekend. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist
The ability to handle the pressure and not let mistakes and errors mount is what Lofstrom sees as the key for his team's success.
"One mistake can cost you," he said. "You'll see teams make mistakes. The biggest thing in these kind of tournaments is if one mistake turns in to two or three. We just need to limit our mistakes."
Brainerd also has a group of solid pitchers to go along with its potent lineup.
Carl Sneep has been one of Brainerd's most consistent pitchers while Matt Siegel and Jake Johnson throw strikes and eat up innings.
Throw in lefty Zach Heidmann and 15-year-old Chris Smolke and Brainerd's rotation is solid.
But, as Lofstrom points out, winning the state tournament isn't about which team has the best pitcher, the best hitter or most athletic shortstop. It's about who is the best team.
TROY GUNDERSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5865.
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