All good things must come to an end, and a season of dreams did just that for the Eagan Patriots last week as the VFW baseball team capped off a 45-5-1 campaign with the program's first state championship on Sunday, Aug. 14.
Eagan came back from a loss to Winona in the opening game of the tournament, held in Bemidji from Aug. 11-14, to win six in a row—including two over the same Winona squad in the title round—to claim the crown.
"It was really fun," Patriots player Kevin Kunik said. "It is an amazing feeling to know that we are the only Eagan team to win the state (VFW) tournament."
Eagan steamrolled through the majority of its summer, compiling two 18-game winning streaks along the way after opening the season with losses in three of the squad's first five games.
"It was funny," Patriots coach Kevin Niemioja said. "We won 18 in a row, lost once (June 28 vs. Apple Valley), then won 18-straight again."
While the second 18-game streak was brought to a halt at a very inopportune time—the opening game of the state tournament—both players and coach alike knew that their squad could still persevere.
"We just can't win 19 in a row," Niemioja joked. "But we won 18 in a row on two occasions, so I knew that winning six-straight was possible."
And so, the Patriots did indeed peel off a half-dozen victories over the weekend, including late rallies against Luverne and Grand Rapids in loser's bracket play and a fightback from an 8-4 deficit in the championship game.
"We were pretty tense heading into that first game," Kunik said. "After that first loss, we loosened up and were playing well."
Kunik earned the victory by pitching the Patriots to an 11-5 win over Winona in the first game of the championship round, with Matt Fiedler going the distance in the 14-8 title-clinching victory that followed.
"It was a lot of fun," Niemioja said of the triumph. "Everyone—players, coaches, parents—were having a great time."
For the tournament, pitcher Luke Hoffman, Colin Olstad, Wyatt Huso and Jon Estes joined Kunik and Fiedler with victories.
At the plate, Patrick Higgins hit the Patriots' lone home run; his blast came in the first game of the championship round. Fiedler led Eagan with a .556 batting average and 19 total bases. Josh Loew tied Fielder with a team-high nine runs batted in for the series, with Higgins pacing the club with 10 runs scored.
According to Kunik, stat chasing too a back seat to commeraderie this summer.
"We really didn't care about that," he said. "We didn't pay attention to the winning and losing—we were having fun. I think all the winning came through that."
Both Kunik and Niemioja admit that there is a bit of a vacuum now, with the season suddenly over and committed to memory.
"It's a little wierd," Kunik, who is running cross-country this fall said. "I have a lot more time on my hands."
For Niemioja, however, the wierdness is good.
"You play for 2 1/2 months and now it's over without that cut-off of a loss," he said. "I've never had that feeling before, there's only one team that gets to end the season with a win. This time, it was us."