BY BRAD SALMEN
DASSEL, COKATO, MN There was little indication going into the 2007 season, and even through the first four games, that the Dassel-Cokato baseball team was anything special.
While the squad was senior-heavy, and had talent spread through the lineup, the seniors had never really accomplished anything of note in any previous season.
And indeed, the Chargers played uninspired baseball to open the season, going 1-3 through their first four games.
To top it all off, their head coach, Chris Strinmoen, announced to the team midway through the season that he would be leaving the program after the season.
Put together, the team could have been excused for phoning it in for the rest of the year.
Instead, in true underdog fashion, the 2007 Chargers banded together to put together perhaps the best season in DCHS history, rattling off 12 straight regular season wins, winning the Section 2AAA championship, and placing third at state despite being the smallest school in the entire class.
From its inauspicious beginning, it ended up being truly a season to remember.
The first four games of the season, however, were ones to forget.
After defeating Foley in the season opener, the Chargers were shut out by Waconia, 8-0, and dropped both games of a doubleheader against Glencoe-Silver Lake to start the season 1-3.
“Those were bad losses, too,” recalled Dan Raisanen, a senior third baseman/pitcher. “We played some ugly baseball.”
Raisanen recalled that at the next practice, Strinmoen (or Strinny, as he’s affectionately called) turned the music on over the sound system and told his players they were a really good baseball team, and that they needed to have some fun and play like they were capable of.
“We had a fun practice with tunes going, and then sure enough, we rattled off a 12-game win streak,” said Raisanen.
Strinmoen’s ability to get the most out of his players, his baseball IQ, and even his sometimes unorthodox style are all fondly remembered by his players. He was perhaps the biggest factor in turning a collection of good-but-not-great players into a great team.
“Coach Strinmoen was one of the best coaches that I have ever had at any level. He always handled everything pretty calmly and was able to stay positive in tough situations,” said senior outfielder Kurt Salmen. “The biggest thing I remember, though, was the passion he had for the game of baseball and the passion he had for our team. He cared a lot about all of us players and we all really respected him for it.”
Said senior Andy Tupa: “Strinny was a great coach. He understood that a lot of baseball is being mentally ready to play. I know he harped on us early in the year about being prepared each and every day. I think that helped us once we got on the winning streak; we knew that his message was paying off.”
Strinmoen also understood that the sum is greater than its parts.
In other words, although many of the players continued to play college or amateur ball after high school, there were no Chargers from 2007 who would go on to stardom.
Instead, what he had was a team filled with solid talent throughout the roster. And if he could get them all to play together, and to the best of their ability, they had a chance to do something big.
“We had an awesome group of guys that played true ‘Team Ball.’ We had two great lefty pitchers in Willy [Bayuk] and Tyler [Zweibohmer] that we rode, a stingy defense that played fundamentally sound, and a steady offensive lineup that didn’t have any superstars but was consistent from top to bottom,” said Raisanen. “We didn’t rely on guys hitting the ball over the fence, but rather got someone on base and moved them around with bunts, singles, stolen bases, and other small-ball tactics.
Bayuk and Zweibohmer (known as ‘Z’ to all that know him) proved to be a formidable 1-2 duo on the mound, combining for nine of the team’s wins during its 12-game win streak.
Annandale, which would end up the #1 seed in the section, broke the streak with a 4-3 win, and the Chargers lost big again to Waconia 11-1.
But DC rebounded to defeat Annandale 7-3 in the final game of the regular season, giving them a much needed confidence boost heading into the section playoffs.
The Chargers entered the Section 2AAA tournament with a 14-5 record, and the #3 seed, behind #1 Annandale and #2 Mankato West.
DC breezed past Orono 17-4 in the first round, and held on for a 4-3 win over #6 Hutchinson, before defeating Mankato West 2-0 behind a shutout from Zweibohmer.
This set up a showdown against top-seeded Annandale. In an unusual twist, DC jumped out to a 3-0 lead after four innings, only to have the game postponed by rain with the Chargers sporting runners in scoring position (see related story).
When the game resumed, DC continued to pile on, racking up an 11-1 win to advance to the section finals.
Their opponent in the finals was Willmar, as unlikely a foe as any. The Cardinals entered the tournament as the #15 and worst-seeded team.
In this case, DC’s Cinderella Story trumped Willmar’s, as DC won 9-4 to advance to state.
And the best part about it was, the Chargers won the game in front of a packed house at their home ballpark, Saints Field.
“The section championship game against Willmar at Saints Field was one of the highlights of the year. The place was packed with what looked like a few rows deep all along the left and right field foul line,” said Raisanen. “After every hit and out, the sound booming out of the grandstand onto the field was awesome.”
“Winning the section championship against Willmar on our home field in front of a packed stadium is one of the special moments of my athletic career,” said Kurt Salmen. “I will never forget holding the trophy and celebrating with all of our fans after the game was over.”
The Chargers may have entered the Section 2AAA tournament as a slight underdog to win the tournament.
Once they did, however, the “slight underdog” status changed to “massive underdog” for the state tournament.
After all, from an enrollment perspective, the Chargers entered as not just the smallest team in the tournament, but in the entire Class AAA.
DC faced Maple Grove, a school over double the size, in the first round at Siebert Field at the U of M.
Assistant Coach Mark Peterson recalls finding some games from local cable access and watching them online to scout the Crimson.
“I was able to talk offensive tendencies with Coach Strinmoen, as well as talk to catcher Bryce Benda about how to pitch to the hitters,” said Peterson. “In the first game, Chris kept the team grounded at doing one thing at a time and really, I do believe Maple Grove was looking past us.”
Zweibohmer benefitted from the advice, throwing a complete-game shutout to lead DC to a 4-0 win.
The Chargers then advanced to face Eden Prairie, a team stacked with several Division I college players.
In an epic, back-and-forth battle that Strinmoen said will “haunt him forever” (see Strinmoen interview), the Eagles scored five runs in the bottom of the sixth to take an 11-9 victory.
The Chargers shook off the heartbreaking defeat to rebound in the third-place game, scoring a 9-4 victory over Duluth East.
The team ended its season with the most wins in school history, overtaking the 1983 team (which also took third place at state) by one with its 21-6 final record.
To a man, the former Charger athletes and coaches interviewed for this article remember the 2007 baseball season as among the highlights of not just their careers, but their lives.
“Even after 10 years from the 2007 season, I often still think back on it,” said Raisanen. “It was such a fun season for us, and now I hope that when my boys get older they have the chance to go on a run like we did.”
Below is a collection of memories shared from players and coaches interviewed about the 2007 baseball season.
On the team chemistry:
Kurt Salmen: We had a very good group of experienced seniors that had been playing baseball our whole careers together. Along with some very talented underclassmen that produced in key moments for us all year long.
One thing that sticks out to me about that group is how we had never really had any substantial success together before that year. I think we had pretty much been an average team at every level. I think the year before we were 11-11 on sections. We always knew that we had talent, but could never get everything to click at the same time.
Luke Peterson: There were a lot of really talented baseball players (and athletes in general on that team). So many of those guys were college-level athletes, whether or not they actually played anywhere. The team was pretty senior heavy, so the few of us non-seniors really had to show we could play.
Kurt Salmen: I think what made us such a good team is we all genuinely cared about everyone on the team and wanted to do well for each other and ourselves. We were very laid back and I don’t remember us being very negative at all. We were just a bunch of kids happy to be playing baseball and happy to be winning.
On Coach Chris Strinmoen:
Dan Raisanen: Strinny was a great guy and great coach. We loved going to the field every day for practice and worked hard for him. He would get crafty with squeeze plays, hit and runs, etc. and being a pitcher himself, knew how to run a good pitching staff. It was fun to play not just for a great guy, but one that loves baseball as much as he does. You can definitely feel his passion for the game.
Kurt Salmen: One of the coaching strategies he used that I think made a big difference in our season is the day after every game he would sit us down in the dugout and we would go down the line of players and everyone had to say one things that we did well or one thing that we didn’t do so well and then we would discuss it as a team.
This allowed us to either own up to the mistakes we made or recognize a teammate for making a good play. It was an easy thing to do and I think that it made us closer as a team and have some ownership.
Mark Peterson (assistant coach): Strinmoen kept the boys focused regardless of who we were playing. The boys didn’t back down or stay in awe of the venue or the much larger schools that we were playing. They played liked they deserved to be there, which they did!
Luke Peterson: Chris was a great coach. He was stern when he needed to be, but he was always a little goofy, I mean, we can’t forget he threw sidearm! He was a smart guy and knew the game well. Definitely one of my favorite baseball coaches.
On the section playoffs:
Mark Peterson: The section tourney was exciting start to finish, and how they played was a direct reflection of Chris keeping the team grounded and in the moment. He spoke often of incremental improvement and refining small things to work on to get better every day, whether it was practice or games.
The game vs. Willmar [section finals] sticks in my mind in a couple of ways. I think Tyler Zweibohmer was pitching and struck out their third basemen on a called third strike.
The Willmar kid was not happy with the call, and left his bat standing on the plate. The coach pulls him for some other fielder, and pinch hitter Jake Hendrickson hits a little chopper that way that the sub can’t make the play on.
The fact the Willmar coach did that in a section game to send a message that to show up the umpire was huge.
Kurt Salmen: Going into sections, we were the #3 seed but we had just beaten the #1 seed Annandale to end the year, so I felt good about what we could accomplish, but going to state wasn’t really even on my mind until we beat Mankato West 2-0 in the semifinals. After that win, I think we all realized that we could do something special and to keep this thing going.
Winning the section championship against Willmar on our home field in front of a packed stadium is one of the special moments of my athletic career. I will never forget holding the trophy and celebrating with all of our fans after the game was over.
On the state playoffs:
Dan Raisanen: We were the smallest school in class AAA for baseball. When people saw the state tournament bracket, it almost seemed laughable. We were mixed in between these huge city schools where just one of their grade sizes was quite a bit bigger than our whole school.
Kurt Salmen: Playing baseball in the state tournament was a dream come true for me. The whole experience was an absolute blast and we had the kind of team that was laid back and just had fun the whole time. We had no pressure on us and no one expected us to be there so we embraced the underdog role and it allowed us to play some really good baseball.
Dan Raisanen: Our welcome home party that evening (after the final game) was something really neat. There was a Saints game that night and the fire trucks escorted us in. There was a big crowd there waiting and giving us a big welcome.
Other memories from the season:
Luke Peterson: I remember Chris rigged up this Shop-Vac powered pitching machine to use mini-wiffle golf balls, which probably helped with our hitting. Either that, or the fact that most of our bats were a few years old and the walls of those bats were basically trampolines. I forget who broke the Easton Stealth we had, but that was a bit of a sad day for the team.
Andy Tupa: I didn’t play a ton, so I had a lot of fun with the guys on the bench. Jake Rausch, Keaton Danielson, and Wade Lundeen were in similar boats to me so we would spend a lot of time having fun. Jake and I would coach first base and became pretty superstitious about the innings we would go out there. I know coach [Mark] Peterson came up from JV, and we convinced Strinny to let us keep coaching first base even through the state tournament.
Mark Peterson: Neither Mike Enerson [freshman coach] nor myself coached first base during sections or state. That was Jake Rausch and Andy Tupa. They both took that job seriously and performed that role with great enthusiasm. When Mike and I arrived for playoffs, we recognized the roles guys like Jake and Andy played, and didn’t want to interfere with a “good thing going.”
We were pretty superstitious of our roles on the team and kept to the same schedule . . . I don’t know what some of the other rituals that Chris or the boys had, but I know there were plenty, little things like who put away whose bat and crazy stuff like that.
Kurt Salmen: One thing that has stuck with me is that we also had a really good team GPA that year, but when we went to the banquet at the state tournament, not a single player from our team was chosen as academic all-state. Coach Strinmoen was so mad about it and I remember him telling the team “Let’s go out there and make them notice us and give us some [goll darn] respect!” It really showed me how much he cared about us and wanted us to get everything we deserved.