Patrick Reusse
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St. Louis Park graduated a senior class of 356 last Tuesday. On Wednesday night, nine seniors were among those being honored at a season-ending baseball banquet, with tables set up on the Orioles' Derrick Keller Field.

There was a difference in the event this time: Rather than a sendoff, it was a celebration.

The Orioles had survived Hopkins in a second game of the Class 4A, Section 6 final two days earlier, and would be playing in the state tournament that starts Tuesday at CHS Field.

"Most of us have played together for a lot of years," first baseman/pitcher Brady Walsh said. "We were always talking about going to the state tournament. We finally made it."

In the case of St. Louis Park, "finally" covers considerably more athletes than the upperclassmen for the 2022 Orioles. "Finally" covers generations. "Finally" covers 70 years.

The Minnesota State High School League first sponsored a baseball tournament in 1947. Five years later, St. Louis Park made it through Region Five with an 8-6 win over Willmar in a game played at the new riverside baseball park in Chaska.

The tournament remained one-class with eight teams through 1975, became two classes in 1976, three classes in 2000 and four classes in 2016. Through those expansions, St. Louis Park was not to be seen in a state tournament bracket — not until last Monday.

"The section has been played at Hopkins' ballpark in recent years," said Brian Kelly, St. Louis Park's coach. "This time, we came through the winners' brackets and Hopkins had to beat us twice.

"We had Kris Hokenson to pitch the first game. He pitched 7⅔ scoreless innings. And we couldn't get a run.

"Hopkins finally scored three runs in the 10th off Stefano Giovannelli, our No. 2 pitcher. Hopkins had won the game started by our ace. We had 20 minutes before the next game to recover from that.

"We were the road team and came out and scored four runs in the top of the first. Then Stefano started and gave us five scoreless innings. And Andruw Vela came in from third base and followed Stefano with two dominating innings.

"We had our most-deflating loss of the season, and came right back with a 7-0 win against a very good team. Those are the type of competitors we have at St. Louis Park."

Seventeen of the 20 players on the Orioles roster are multisport athletes. Hokenson, a lefty pitcher and hitter, also was multisport, until his baseball excellence was such that it received his full attention.

He has signed with the Gophers for the 2022-23 season, one of six Minnesotans in a class of nine freshmen for a program desperately in need of reinvigoration.

"I consider Kris to be the best pitcher in the state," Kelly said. "And he might be the best hitter."

Giovannelli, a junior, is another outstanding prospect. He played center field when Hokenson pitched, and vice versa. The deal is, Giovannelli is a three-sport athlete and probably will wind up playing college football as a wide receiver.

Walsh, a senior, was a teammate in those three sports: baseball, along with football and basketball.

We were sitting in the dugout before a practice last week and Walsh said: "Did you hear about our football game last fall with Waconia? We scored 29 points in the fourth quarter and won, 29-28. Stefano caught three touchdown passes, two in the last 30 seconds."

On the last TD, with four seconds remaining, Giovannelli got away from double coverage, then went above the defenders for a 36-yard touchdown. And it still took a two-point conversion for this amazing win.

And now more amazement: a state baseball tournament — after 70 years.

"We first started hearing about that at the beginning of season," Walsh said. "Seems incredible. Both my parents went to St. Louis Park and that was way before their time."

There has been another source of inspiration not as ancient for this team, one to be seen every time they have practiced or played on the home field, in high school, in Legion ball, at other levels.

Derrick Keller was an all-state baseball player for the Orioles in 2011. "He was the Dude around here," said Kelly, an assistant before becoming the head coach. "He walked in and brought energy to everyone. He would be driving past a playground, see some kids playing ball, and stop, hit infield, throw batting practice, encourage the kids to keep at it."

Keller was diagnosed with a vicious form of leukemia shortly after graduation. He went through experimental treatment and died in 2012 at 18.

Some Orioles have older siblings who went to school with Keller. They also know the legend.

Come Tuesday at CHS Field, vs. Maple Grove at 1 p.m., St. Louis Park will take the field in celebration for seven decades of Orioles, including the Dude with his name on their scoreboard.