MINDEN — Dan Wilson has been walking a tightrope of sorts in his six years of coaching American Legion baseball in Minden.
Like any small community with a limited pool of athletes, attitudes in the Highway 6 town — population 3,000 — have been largely closed off to the idea of baseball being something more than a summertime activity.
And it’s no surprise. Baseball isn’t offered as a spring sport at Minden High School, which generally boasts a strong track and field program.
But, with the addition of a third class in baseball in 2023 by the Nebraska Schools Activities Association, Minden, theoretically, could field a team in the future.
That all remains to be discussed and fought over.
Wilson, who teaches and coaches at C.L. Jones Middle School, would certainly have an argument in supplementing a team when that time comes after what he’s done with the Post 94 American Legion team in his six years leading it.
Participation numbers are way up, Minden is winning games, and, most notably, the Post 94 seniors just qualified for their first state tournament in 47 years.
So, maybe it’s time for a change in stance on baseball in Minden.
“Baseball is taking off in the Minden and Axtell areas,” said Wilson, a Ralston native who moved out west from the Omaha metro in 2016 when his wife took a speech pathologist position at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“We have multi-sport athletes in every school around here and it was really just getting them to buy into (the idea) that baseball was just like a high school sport. It wasn’t something to do for fun; it was something to come out and compete.”
And there is something to play for: a state title.
That’s what Minden (15-8) will have a chance to chase in Broken Bow, beginning this weekend. The Class B tournament kicks off Saturday morning.
Post 94 will open at 3 p.m. against the host team. It’ll be the third time they’ll have played Broken Bow in a span of six days. The first meeting was an 8-0 rout, but the second — for the Area 6 title on Tuesday — was much more “Minden-style baseball,” said Wilson, whose team fell 8-5 in Gothenburg.
“It was one of those games either team deserved to win,” he said.
The third time, Wilson hopes, is the one where his team does win.
It would further cement the Minden baseball legacy of nine seniors who helped build what Wilson envisioned.
“We went from having about 12 or 13 kids (total) to about 16 or 17 kids on each team,” the coach said. “We’ve got 30-40 kids out playing baseball every year.”
Admittedly, not all are baseball players. But some are. Like Carter Harsin, who Wilson expects to play the sport at the next level despite having all-around talents on the football field, basketball court and track.
The team’s catcher, Harsin leads Post 94 in batting average at .403 with 31 hits, including a team-high seven doubles.
“He’s also been one of our top pitchers; he’s been our closer the last couple of weeks,” Wilson said of Harsin, who carries a 3.45 earned run average and a 3-0 win-loss record on the mound. “He’s just really good.”
Calvin Johnson, who represents Axtell, is committed to play baseball at Western Nebraska Community College. He leads the team with 33 stolen bases this summer.
“Every year since I’ve been here we’ve had somebody go and play baseball at the next level,” Wilson said.
Minden was the top seed in the area tournament but had to battle through the losers bracket last week to reach the final. Once there, though, their spot at state was already clinched thanks to Broken Bow automatically earning a berth as the host.
“The boys knew with what our area looked like, with Broken Bow hosting state, we were hoping they’d be with us,” Wilson said. “We knew with our staff we’d have a chance to make a run at state and it just worked out for us.”
Wilson credited the pitching staff for surviving and advancing to the program’s first state tourney since 1975.
Led by Ashton Hawkins’ 2.63 ERA, Post 94 has a stable of arms ready to go.
“We’ve got our Nos. 1, 2 and 3 starters that we count on all the time, but we’ve also got six guys who are not afraid to go in the game and take on a challenge,” Wilson said.
Post 94 has been on the cusp of a state tournament the last few years, finishing a game or two short of qualifying. It just so turned out this was the team to break through the barrier.
“You don’t go to state very often,” Wilson said, “so this is kind of a neat deal.”
Carter Harsin, Jasper Birkestrand, Jamey Birkestrand, Rylan Holsten, Bradley Smolik, Evan Smith, Brennan Runge, David Smolik, Ethan Morgan, Lucas Epperson, Austin Lutkemeier, Cal Johnson, Ashton Hawkins, Nolan Reed, Tony Amer, Jose Ciprion, Cade Harsin, Jake Halverson. Coaches: Dan Wilson, Brent Harsin, Jeff Halvorsen, Greg Smolik.
Class B seniors state tournament first-round matchups
9 a.m. Saturday — Waverly vs. Lakeview
noon — Valparaiso vs. Ogalalla
3 p.m. — Broken Bow vs. Minden
6 p.m. — Blair vs. Hickman