Put under pressure, Panthers thrive

North baseball wins 3 in row to return to state

Lakeville North players Kyle Rhodus (left), A.J. Sayer and Angelo Altavilla converge on a fly ball that Rhodus catches during the Section 3 championship game against Bloomington Jefferson. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy
Lakeville North players Kyle Rhodus (left), A.J. Sayer and Angelo Altavilla converge on a fly ball that Rhodus catches during the Section 3 championship game against Bloomington Jefferson. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

For the second year in a row, Lakeville North stared at elimination in the section baseball tournament and refused to blink.

After winning their final three Section 3 playoff games by a combined 25-2, the Panthers are back in the state Class 3A tourney and are the No. 1 seed. They will play Brainerd in the state tournament opener at 10 a.m. Thursday at Midway Stadium in St. Paul.

Once again, North had to play its best when the pressure was on. Last year the Panthers won back-to-back games against Burnsville to reach the state tourney, where they won the consolation championship.

This time they lost to Bloomington Jefferson in the winners’ bracket final and responded with victories over Eastview (9-2) and Jefferson (10-0 and 6-0) to win the section title.

“I guess we don’t like to do it the conventional, easy way,” Lakeville North coach Tony Market said. “But our kids have a lot of pride. There wasn’t a moment when we thought we couldn’t come back.”

Lakeville North’s only loss in the section tournament was 8-5 against Jefferson on May 30. When the teams met again June 3-4, North held the Jaguars scoreless over 13 innings.

Four days after being hit hard by the Jaguars in the winners’ bracket final, North senior left-hander pitched a five-hit shutout against Jefferson to keep his team in the tournament.

“That first game, I didn’t pitch; I threw,” Lehnen said. “After we beat Eastview, I knew I was going to pitch again against Jefferson. I knew it was going to be one of the biggest games of my life, but I want to pitch in those situations.”

Nick Dorfman, who worked three innings in the Panthers’ June 2 victory over Eastview, worked the first four innings of the June 4 section championship game before turning over a 6-0 lead to A.J. Sayer. The two held Jefferson to three hits and combined to strike out five.

North scored all six of its runs in the championship game in the fourth inning. Angelo Altavilla singled and Lehnen doubled off the right-field fence, putting runners at second and third with no outs. Both scored on Ben Jensen’s single.

Later, Drew Stewart drew a bases-loaded walk, making it 3-0. Sayer singled to drive in the fourth run, and Joseph Larson made it 5-0 by scoring on a wild pitch. An infield single by Matt Arnold brought in the sixth run.

Stewart had two hits and three RBI in the 10-0 victory over Jefferson on June 3. Jensen drove in two runs, and Lehnen and Kyle Rhodus had two hits each.

“It’s been a great year for a lot of teams at Lakeville North, and we didn’t want to be left out,” Market said.

If the Panthers (21-4) beat Brainerd (21-3) in the quarterfinals, they would play defending state champion Mounds View (18-6) or Elk River (17-8) in the semifinals at noon Friday at Midway Stadium. The championship game is 6 p.m. Saturday at Target Field.

After clinching the Section 3 championship, Lakeville North players and coaches were particularly interested in where Lakeville South would be placed at state. Lakeville South finished last in the South Suburban Conference but went 5-1 in the Section 1 tournament to earn a place at state. It’s the first time both Lakeville teams have qualified for the state baseball tournament.

South was placed in the bracket opposite of North, meaning the teams can meet only in the final round at state – for first, third or fifth place.

Lakeville South head coach Allen Iversen was an assistant coach in the Lakeville High School program until becoming Apple Valley’s head coach in 2001. He returned to Lakeville baseball in 2011 as South’s head coach. Market also was an assistant in the Lakeville High program, as were several current assistants at the two high schools.

“We all worked together at one point under (Mark) Zeise,” Market said, referring to the former Lakeville High School and Lakeville South head coach. “Now that we’re all back working in Lakeville, it is special.”

“I think it’s great for Lakeville baseball,” Lehnen said. “I don’t think having two teams from the same city in the state tournament has happened very often, if ever. Hopefully we get to play (Lakeville South). That would be really cool.”