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Hostile Territory

Two summers ago the Haugen Knights traveled to Ellsworth for the first round of the WBA playoffs.  On paper it seemed like the first round would only be a tune up for the rest of the playoffs - after all, Ellsworth finished 8-8 in their league while the Knights had just completed a dominating regular season, winning the Indy Leage with a 15-1 record as well as crusing through three games for the league tournament title just the weekend before.
In the fifth inning, the Knights were staring at a 4-0 deficit, while they hadn't yet had a runner reach second base.  Ellsworth draft pick Ross Benitz (from Osceola) seemed to have the Knights number and the hometown Hubber fans could smell blood in the water.  The Knights rallied to force extra innings, and ended up winning the roller-coaster ride of a game 8-7 in the 11th as both pitchers went the distance for their respective teams.  The Knights would go on to win three more come from behind games as they made it to the WBA title game on their home field, but ended up being blown out by the defending champion Eau Claire Bears.
This weekend's game appears eerily similar to the 2009 WBA playoff opener.  Once again the Knights will be the true visiting team as they take on a .500 semi-final host in front of their home crowd on a Friday night.  However, the Knights shouldn't be surprised this time around as the slugfest from 2009 is most likely in the back of their minds.  Many of the faces from that game will be the same - other than their draft pick, the Knights return the same roster that faced the Hubbers two years ago.  Osceola Braves pitcher Ross Benitz pitched well against the Knights that year as the Hubbers draft pick; will he again be given the assignment to shut down the Knights lineup?  Or will that responsibility be given to the Braves draft pick, lefty Rich Klein from the New Richmond Millers?
The Knights are looking to return to the state tournament for the fourth straight year and the fifth time in six years.  They're also attempting to become the 2nd team (EC Bears '08-'09) to repeat as WBA champions since the Hayward Hawks won three straight from 1981-1983.  The journey begins Friday in Osceola.

Week of Streaks

The Haugen Knights face what is likely their biggest weekend of the season thus far.  Tied with Hayward for second place in the Indy at 10-3 and trailing Indy League leaders Brill (13-0), the Knights will get a crack at both of them in a pair of games this weekend.  Saturday, the Knights will travel seven miles east to play Brill on Military Appreciation Day.  After winning their first thirteen league games this summer, Brill is in position to clinch an outright Indy League title with a win on Saturday.  Meanwhile, the Knights are looking to keep their six game league win streak and title hopes alive.  WIth a win, the Knights would pull within two games of Brill, and would need to win their final two to keep title hopes alive.  On top of winning out, they'd need help from Grantsburg and Seeley in order to catch the Millers.
Regardless of the outcome, the Knights return home on Sunday to face the red-hot Hayward Hawks.  The Hawks have a winning streak of their own in place, having won their last six league games and twelve straight overall.  The winner of this game will all but lock up second place in the league race with both teams favored in their final league contests.  In addition to the league standings, the Knights are playing for playoff seeding as well.  The defending state champs are sitting as the tweflth overall seed in the 32 team field, and are looking to jump into the top eight and grab a #1 seed with a strong finish in league play.
Streaks in Play
Knights - 6 straight league wins
Brill - 13 straight league wins
Hawks - 6 straight league wins, 12 straight overall

Saturday Night's All Right For a Fight

The Independent League’s top dogs over the past five years will square off in one of their two annual games this Saturday night. Brill enters the contest with a 4-0 record in Indy play, while the Knights (3-1) were upset by Spooner for their first league loss last Sunday afternoon. The two teams have made some noise and created recognition for the Independent League statewide in the WBA community, with a combined nine state tournament appearances since 2002, and eight of those occurring since 2005. The Knights (2006, 2008, 2009, 2010) and Millers (2005, 2007, 2008, 2010) have qualified for the state finals four times each in the past five and six years respectively, which on their own is more than the combined number of appearances by all other Indy teams from the past decade, with only Stanberry (2001), the Haugen Hornets (2003), and Grantsburg (2006) having survived to be one of the final eight teams alive in the WBA playoffs.  Teams across the state have run into the two teams representing the tiny towns, often leaving defeated saying “I don’t know where the heck Haugen/Brill is, but they sure play good baseball.” 
Some have suggested that the two teams join forces (along with the Haugen Hornets), as the combined population of the two towns barely pushes 700, and are separated only by a six mile stretch of County Road V. Geographically and on paper that looks great; but the lines of tradition have been drawn so deep with these teams that those close to the baseball programs know that there’s a better chance of a Hatfield/McCoy family reunion. “A bunch of us grew up together and played all the way through high school together, so we’ve definitely had conversations about what it would be like to combine the teams and create a super-team,” Knights outfielder Erik Hill said, “but the success and tradition and all of the other things that these teams have built on their own is a huge roadblock to that ever happening.”

And so, the approximately thirty players will step on the diamond at the Haugen Ball Park Saturday night; some donning the white, red, and black of the hometown Knights, and the others sporting the red, white, and blue of the visiting Millers, for yet another rivalry game with Independent League title implications written all over it. Millers’ outfielder Kirby Brunclik attributes both teams’ playoff success in part to the competition in the league, and specifically between the two teams. "I think the competition between Brill and the Knights has been a big part of each team's success. We always look forward to the games against the Knights because we know we're going to gain valuable experience against a solid competitor. That experience helps us prepare for the post season, and I'm sure playing against us has made them better as well.”

Not only is the competition good, the atmosphere surrounding games between the two teams can be pretty intense. Hill compared it to a playoff game, “The two towns are so close to each other, and also to Rice Lake where many of us are from, so we get some pretty awesome crowds to these games, better than a lot of playoff games, actually.” Brunclik added, “The tradition of success we’ve both had, along with the proximity to our fan bases create a pretty intense atmosphere for a baseball game. I don’t think most teams get to experience this in the regular season.”   The atmosphere might be taken to a new level Saturday night, as the Knights are formally celebrating their 2010 WBA State Championship. A sign has been hung in left-center field to commemorate their title, and during the game Saturday night raffles will take place every inning, along with free beer for the fans that come out to the ballpark.

It should be a good one, both teams have had success in big games, and both teams understand the significance of this one. “We know it’s only one game on a sixteen game schedule,” Knights catcher Derc Teschler said, “but this game is one of those sixteen that we circle every year the schedule comes out. They know it, we know it, everybody knows it. It’s going to be a fun night.”

Decision 2011

With the folding of the St. Croix Ravens, some of the remaining players have started the search for a new team this offseason.  Perhaps one of the biggest free agents coming from the Ravens is Kris Minor.  Minor was a stalwart in the Ravens lineup during their decade of existance, and is a versatile player capable of playing any position.  This is the first time he's tested free agency since his signing with the Ravens back in 1999, and a number of teams are clamoring for his services. 


One of those teams is rumored to be the Haugen Knights, who are fresh off back to back Indy League titles and are also the defending WBA state champions after capturing their first ever championship last August.  When asked about the possibility of MInor joining the Knights, veteran outfielder Erik Hill seemed to approve.  "If we could somehow swing that it would be great for our team," Hill said.  " I've gotten to know Kris fairly well after playing against him for a number of years, and he'd fit in great with this group.  I'm not sure what position we'd have him in since our lineup has been pretty well set for a few years here, but you find something for a guy of that caliber."


Knights beat reporter Paul Clayson had a conversation with Minor in early March, at which point Minor mentioned a number of potential teams.  "I've had talks with the Duluth Padres, Port Wing Boilers, Twin Ports North Stars, and Ashland Merchants (all of the Upper 13 league), as well as the Hayward Hawks and Haugen Knights (Independent League)” Minor said. “Ideally I’d sign with the Knights, but due to the team radius rule some other things would have to fall into place there.”
The Twin Ports North Stars are also considered one of the major teams in the running for Minor, as a few of his Ravens teammates signed there this offseason. At this point in his career, winning is a top priority. “I’m looking for someplace where we’ll have a chance to win, and hopefully it’s with a group of guys that can keep up with this early thirties guy,” Minor said with a grin. “With the Ravens we were primed to make a run a number of years, but never quite made it, hopefully in my next stop, wherever it is, we can take that step.
In addition to Minor, Ravens’ slugger RJ Keur, and infielder Vinny Viggiano are also looking for new teams, though it has been mentioned that they might take the 2011 season off. 


The Independent League schedule is still in the works, but no matter what happens it will look a bit different than years past. The Ravens are out, and Exeland’s younger team is joining the league to keep the number of teams at twelve. There has been talk of division realignment, and the addition of an all-star game has been confirmed and is scheduled to take place in Hayward on July 20th.


Will Minor be representing an Indy League team in that game come July, or will he take his talents north to the Upper 13? It sounds like we'll find out soon, according to Minor.  "I'm going to test the market a bit and enjoy the process, but at the same time I'd like to have this wrapped up before the end of March.  It isn't having much effect on my preparation for the upcoming season, but I'd like to know which uniform I'll be wearing come May."

Stay tuned to for breaking news on Decision 2011.