The Mounds View baseball team walked off the field as winners but not how they envisioned it would be.
The talented Mustangs had their sights set on celebrating a Class 4A baseball championship at Target Field a little more than a month from now. Then the COVID-19 pandemic turned that dream into a nightmare when the Minnesota State High School League shut down the spring sports season April 23.
The team, which could have had as many as 15 seniors this season, still went out victorious but had to go back nearly a year ago, when it defeated Hopkins 9-2 to become consolation champion at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul.
“We didn’t know at the time that would be our last game,” Mustangs senior third baseman Ike Mezzenga said. He went 3-for-4, scored three runs and drove in three runs in the victory. “Sure, it was a good way to go out, but what happened this year was really disappointing. It was a punch to the gut.”
Of the seniors on this year’s preseason roster, 10 were on the state tournament team a year ago.
“The seniors are especially hard hit by this,” Mustangs coach Mark Downey said. “This was their final opportunity to compete for their high school.
“They should be enjoying their senior year of high school, and going to the field every day to enjoy their friends and the game of baseball.”
First baseman Jack Hentges was part of a group that went on a senior trip to Florida early in March before tryouts were to be held.
“We were expected to have tryouts the next week after the trip,” Hentges said. “Our tryouts were delayed, then the start of the season was delayed. I thought that was pretty crazy.”
Hentges still held out hope that the Mustangs would take to the diamond. He was among a group of players who would work out at McCullough Park in nearby Shoreview.
“We kept swinging the bat and throwing to each other,” Hentges said. “We played home run derby, too.”
That was until the high school league, after extending the spring sports shutdown in concert with distance learning to May 4, canceled the season for good nearly two weeks ago.
“That was really tough news to take,” Hentges said. “Obviously, it’s really hard not having a senior season, but safety is the No. 1 priority.”
For Hentges, it brought an abrupt end to his career. He will not play baseball in college.
“I really miss not being able to crack jokes on the bench and the nail-biting games,” Hentges said. “We had great chemistry with this group.”
Mezzenga feels badly for all the players such as Hentges, “the seniors who are done playing baseball,” he said.
“I at least still have a chance to play in college.” He is headed to North Iowa Area Community College.
Two seniors — pitchers/outfielders Brett Bateman and Ian Bahn — are Division I-bound. Bateman is headed to the Gophers and Bahn to South Dakota State. Junior catcher/pitcher Will Rogers has committed verbally to Arizona State.
“We had a solid team,” Mezzenga said. “We haven’t had much change in the team since our 13-year-old traveling team. We all helped each other get better, and we were going to be able to show that this year.”
The group was built around a good pitching staff, solid offense and an outstanding defense.
Downey said his squad “is really no different than any of the other thousands of high school baseball teams across the state and the country.
‘‘We obviously had high expectations going into the season. The players’ biggest goal each spring is to simply enjoy playing baseball and competing with their buddies, the guys they have been playing sports with for many years.
“Regardless of a team’s chances of competing for a championship, this is the most important thing.”
It wasn’t solely about baseball.
“I wish as seniors we would be able to celebrate prom and graduation,” Hentges said.
“It’s a tough situation all the way around.”