When the 57th Annual VFW Junior Baseball Tournament begins play on Thursday, Marshall VFW Blue will take the field for the first time in 10 days. Marshall Blue, which qualified after winning the District 3 playoffs in Luverne on July 29, has used that time to fine-tune its game that has been inconsistent at times this season.
"The state tournament often comes down to one or two little plays," said VFW Blue coach Matt Suby. "So we try and focus on knowing where our bunt coverages are, knowing where our first and third coverages are, making sure we're running the bases how we should, taking leads that we should. It's hard to maintain that same level just through practice."
In order to compensate for the lack of a game-type atmosphere, Marshall Blue (20-10), who will face Bemidji (24-5) in the tournament's first game at 10 a.m. Thursday in Mankato, had attempted to set up scrimmages during the layoff. They found a willing opponent on Monday night.
"We were fortunate (Monday), we actually had most of the (Marshall) Legion team come out to the college and we did a little scrimmage to give us some live-game action," Suby said. "You appreciate the Legion guys being willing to do that. It says a lot about Marshall baseball."
The scrimmage took place after the Legion team's end of the season banquet and a brief conversation between Suby and Mudcats coach Chace Pollock.
"I talked to Chace and just asked if any of those guys would be willing to come out and scrimmage," Suby said. "(Pollock) said after their banquet almost everyone raised their hands and said they wanted to come out and play. I think they were missing maybe one or two guys. We're very grateful that they were willing to do that."
Although this will be Marshall's first VFW state tournament appearance since 2009, it will be Suby's third appearance as the coach. His team, with its mixed ages and lack of state tournament experience, will be able to rely on Suby come game time.
"It's certainly a fun atmosphere to be in," Suby said. "You know right when you step on the field that you're playing against good competition. The first thing we talked about was making sure we matched that."
In his previous two trips to the state tournament, Suby has seen his teams react differently to the stage.
"In (2006), we took advantage," Suby said. "We did the same thing, we played two games the first day and we came out ready to play and we won two games. In (2009), after a couple of innings is when we were really ready to play. We went, I think, 12 innings with the first team and really battled hard through that first game. And unfortunately we came up on a losing end and weren't able to recover enough over the next couple of hours and were done in two games."
The mixed bag of experience at the state tournament has given Suby the insight needed to ensure the 2012 team has its best chance for success.
"Just being prepared and making sure that we've done what we can as coaches to get them prepared and get them in the right mindset," Suby said. "Once the game starts and you get that first out or you get that first hit, they all tend to settle down and it just becomes baseball."
With 10 days to prepare and some extra help from members of the Marshall baseball community, Suby knows that all that remains is to take the field.
"Our first goal is we want to win the first inning of the first game," Suby said. "If we can do that and get off to a good start, it's amazing how much that can carry on from inning to inning and game to game."
Getting the ball for Marshall Blue in that first inning of game one will be Riley Sharbono, who was on the mound for Marshall's district championship game.
"(Sharbono's) a kid that we've got a lot of confidence in," Suby said. "He keeps the ball down and throws strikes and he gives our defense a chance to make plays. That's really what we want out of him."
Marshall Blue has two games scheduled for Thursday. Their first match-up is at 10 a.m. and depending on whether they win or lose, a game at 3 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. The tournament venues are Franklin Rogers Field, home of the Northwoods League Mankato MoonDogs, and the Mankato East high school baseball field.
Keeping the top competition and relative lack of experience in mind, Suby believes in this team's potential.
"If we can play good defense and have some good at-bats, I think we can play with anybody," Suby said. "We just need to maintain that consistency. If we do that, if you get two wins on that first day, you are putting yourself in a real good spot. Almost a game ahead of everybody else. That's really what we're focusing on. Play hard, taking advantage of the opportunities that are given to us and go from there."