Two Northern Sun baseball teams are ranked in the top 20 in the latest NCAA Division II poll.
Minot State is not one of them, but nobody is sitting better than the Beavers in the NSIC.
Minot State maintained its poll position in the conference with a sweep of the University of Mary on Friday at Bismarck Municipal Ballpark. After their hard-earned 4-2 and 6-3 wins over the Marauders, the Beavers are 27-6 in the NSIC, leading 11th-ranked Augustana (25-6) and No. 19 Minnesota State Mankato (26-7).
"We knew we had a good team. We definitely felt like we had a chance to do some things if things broke our way," said Minot State head coach Scott Eul. "We've been on a lot of long bus rides, played on some weird fields. We've been to Nebraska quite a bit, but our guys have been resilient, they've battled and it's been fun to watch."
Friday's doubleheader represented the first home games of the season for the Marauders. Today's twinbill against Minot State will be their last.
In the midst of a challenging season, interim head coach Kevin Walsh has his team playing its best ball down the stretch. The Marauders had won three of their previous five games and gave the league-leading Beavers all they wanted on a perfect day at the ballpark.
"How beautiful was this to be out here today playing good, competitive baseball against the No. 1 team in the conference," Walsh said. "They are the No. 1 team for a reason. They proved it today, but I'm really proud of how our guys competed."
Justin Demary and Trevor Zacher turned Game 1 into a pitchers' duel.
Zacher has been quite the story for the Marauders on the mound. A basketball player during the winter, the Beulah, N.D., product has turned into an effective pitcher this spring.
He limited the Beavers to two runs on four hits with six strikeouts over seven strong innings. Minot State scored twice in the eighth off the U-Mary bullpen.
"It all started with him playing catch in October and all of the sudden he's starting Game 1 against Minot," Walsh said of Zacher. "That was his best performance of the year.
"I went up to him in the seventh because his pitch count was a little high but I was like, 'I'm not taking you out of this game.' And he says, 'Good, because I'm not coming out of this game.'"
Celestino Rodriguez's two-run home run to right field in the top of the third was the only blemish on Zacher's line.
The Marauders answered, however, tying it in the bottom of the fourth on a solo blast by Travis Stevens.
"I thought it was a really good college baseball game. We had some really good at bats in some key spots. Obviously, Trevor threw a great game for us, but they found a way to get a couple of runs late," Walsh said. "That's what we want to see from our guys. Good competitive at bats. Making the right play defensively. Executing pitches consistently. We're doing a lot of good things."
Seth Siverson had two of the Marauders' five hits in Game 1.
Minot State built a 4-1 lead in the nightcap, but the Marauders whittled the deficit to 4-3 on a run-scoring single by Chris Scott in the third to bring home Stevens. Nick McCann followed with a sacrifice fly to score Darius Barlas to cut the deficit to one (4-3).
But the Beavers answered with a run-scoring triple by Michael Borst in the fifth. Rodriguez, hitting cleanup, ripped a double two batters later to score Borst to push the lead to three (6-3).
"Our lineup is really good 1-6 then we kinda rotate 7-9 with whoever is hot," Eul said. "We've been pretty consistent offensively this season. Our lineup is kind of our money-maker. We'll keep riding those guys as long as we can."
The Beavers got strong work on the mound on Friday. Demary (7 1/3 innings) and Andres Hackman (6 2/3) combined to get all but three outs on the day.
Today's doubleheader starts at noon. Two more wins by the Beavers would secure a top 2 seed in the NSIC tournament, which begins on Wednesday in Sioux Falls.
"We try to keep our focus on one game at a time," Eul said. "It's been a fun season and hopefully we can finish at the top."
The Marauders are looking to end the season on a high note.
"We're playing good baseball," Walsh said. "There are so many positives for us to build on. I feel really good about the direction of the program."