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Smittys clinch first state tourney berth since 2017

Members of the Aberdeen Smittys celebrate their win over Watertown on Friday securing their entry into the State A Tournament next week in Yankton. Photo by Terry Salfrank

WATERTOWN – The Aberdeen Smittys punched their ticket to the Class A State Baseball Tournament on Friday, defeating Watertown 1-0 in the Class A American Legion playoffs. The win gave the Smittys a two-game sweep in the series and sent them into the state tourney for the first time since 2017.

“I am so incredibly proud and happy for this group. They’ve battled all season to earn a state tournament berth, and all that work had paid off,” said Smittys coach Brandon Kusler said. “We’re going to enjoy getting to this point, but we’re not satisfied with just being there. We’re going to be ready to go compete for a state championship.”

The state tournament runs Tuesday through Saturday in Yankton.

After an offensive explosion in game one on Thursday, the Smittys settled for a defensive slugfest in game two. Both teams were scoreless after three and a half innings before Aberdeen plated the only run of the game in the bottom of the fourth inning. With the bases loaded, Phillip Zens drove in a run on a ground out to third base, allowing Zane Backous to score, which turned out to be just enough to earn the win.

Zens was stellar on the mound, throwing a complete game four-hitter, while striking out six. He worked out of multiple challenges, including a bases-loaded jam in the top of the seventh inning.

“I can’t say enough good things about Phillip Zens,” Kusler said. “He’s been a guy we’ve relied on all year, and he pitched a helluva game today. He did an excellent job of working out of multiple jams throughout the game.”

Kusler wasn’t sure of Zens’ pitching status heading into the series, but received all the confirmation he needed following Thursday night’s series opener.

“Phil has battled through an injury the last couple weeks, so I was a little hesitant to put him on the mound,” Kusler said. “When I talked to him (Thursday) night and asked him if he wanted the ball, his answer was very clear: ‘I want the ball. I feel great.’ That made my decision really easy.”

Casey Vining and Ethan Kjenstad managed the only hits Aberdeen had in the contest.

Ethan Kjenstad, of the Aberdeen Smittys, connects with a pitch during a game against the Harrisburg Tigers recently at Fossum Field. Kjenstad had one of Aberdeen’s two hits in a victory at Watertown on Friday. Photo by John Davis taken 7/16/2023

Kusler said his team had a tough time gaining traction against Watertown pitchers Will Engstrom and Gavin Maag.

“Offensively, we really struggled getting anything going. Gotta give Engstrom and Maag a ton of credit for keeping our guys off balance all game long,” Kusler said. “Fortunately, we were able to pull through with one run in the fourth, but they definitely had their way with us all game.”

The Smittys, 27-16 on the season, now advance to the Class A state tournament, where they will face Harrisburg Gold, a team Aberdeen just split with last Sunday. First pitch is set for 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in Yankton.

Kusler was quick to thank all who have supported the team throughout the season.

“I’m blessed to be able to coach this team and be surrounded by such a great group of guys, supportive group of parents, and a great assistant, Reece Ragatz,” Kusler said. “I’m fortunate to be able to spend another week playing baseball with these guys.”

Watertown 000 000 0 – 0 4 0

Aberdeen Smittys 000 100 x – 1 2 2

Will Engstrom, Jackson Maag (5) and Carson Mutschler; Phillip Zens and Andrew Woehl; 2B – Watertown, Drew Denzer, Mutschler.

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