Opposing teams unfamiliar with Tony Skjefte often bring their third baseman in when he bats, anticipating a bunt, and shift their outfield to the right, expecting late swings.
But by the middle of American Legion tournaments, rival pitchers know better. The 5-9, 155-pound second baseman for Eden Prairie can rip a baseball.
"He is a stick of dynamite," said Rob Fornasiere, a Gophers assistant baseball coach who has frequently scouted Eden Prairie. Skjefte and EP teammate Lance Thonvold, a relief pitcher and outfielder, both will play for the Gophers next year.
Before that they have one last summer tournament. Eden Prairie will play Midland, Mich., Friday in the first game of the Legion World Series in Shelby, N.C. This is Eden Prairie's fourth appearance in eight years and second in a row. Last year in Spokane, Wash., Eden Prairie had the national title seemingly in its grasp but lost twice to Midwest City (Okla.), 11-6 and 10-1, on the final day.
"I think about that all the time," Skjefte said. "We saw them celebrating on the field. Now we have the chance again. That adds to the excitement, and we have the team to do it."
Eden Prairie has actually come close to winning a national title twice. The 2007 team, with Skjefte's brother Lucas at second base, also finished second.
This team, like last year's, is strong offensively, Eden Prairie coach Scott Hackett said. "[Batters] 1 through 9, everybody has been able to contribute," he said. "And we have some experienced pitchers who have pitched in a lot of big games, high school and Legion. They don't get too rattled. Then we have a couple college guys back."
Everyone has been motivated to return to the World Series. "Last year's run at least let's them know we can compete," Hackett said. "We won't be in awe."
Skjefte, who bats third, said being surrounded by good hitters helps him. "They have to pitch to someone, at sometime, and it happened to me [last] weekend," said Skjefte, named MVP of the Central Plains Regional in Dickinson, N.D., after hitting .571 in five games with four homers, eight RBI and 11 runs.
As a wrestler, Skjefte won a school-record 137 matches for Eden Prairie and appeared in three state tournaments. "Wrestling has had a big impact on my core strength," Skjefte said. "I have a lot of pride in my swing. If I hit the ball, things happen."
Said Fornasiere: "He is a wrestler, a tough kid who gets most out of his body. I can't wait to get him on campus."
Skjefte leads EP in home runs (13) and RBI (58) and is second in average (.383). First baseman Tyler Peterson is second in homers (12) and RBI (52) and leads in average (.490). Nine others are hitting at least .350.
But Skjefte said pitching sets the tone and Eden Prairie has that, too. "We have five pitchers that can get a win against any team," he said.
Adam Bray and Tyler Ruemmele, both seniors last spring, are the top starters. Thonvold is the closer with seven saves and a fastball that hits 90 miles per hour.
All of them are Skjefte's buddies. He began playing with many of his teammates at age 10 in traveling baseball.
"We're like family," Skjefte said, "and, when we do big things, it makes it more special."
Another World Series tops that special list, especially if the ending is different this time.
"We know we have unfinished business," Skjefte said. "We can't be satisfied."