Heritage Christian's Seth Halvorsen already has thrown a no-hitter and struck out 51 batters in his first 21 innings this season. He's also hitting .500. (Xavier Wang, Star Tribune)
For a little more than four years, the Heritage Christian Academy baseball team has been the helium balloon bumping against the ceiling, constantly rising but unable to break through. The Eagles have played in four consecutive Class 1A, Section 4 championship games, losing all four by a single run.
Earlier this season, the Maple Grove-based team fell to New Life Academy 3-1 despite a two-hitter from ace pitcher Seth Halvorsen. Nine days later, Halvorsen pitched a no-hitter, but a walk, balk and error led to an unearned run and a 1-0 loss to Mayer Lutheran.
On a recent cloudy afternoon against St. Croix Prep, the Eagles had baserunners aplenty through the first four innings but somehow never managed to get one across the plate while No. 2 starter Nathan “Sauce” Sawtelle was twirling a gem. Thoughts began to creep in: Again?
“Baseball is a funny game,” coach Jon Ledeboer said. “It’s usually just one pitch here or one pitch there. But our motto this year is ‘Make Every Effort.’ It’s like, ‘All right, that didn’t go our way. Now let’s turn the page and make every effort to move on.’ Things have a way of evening up.”
They did, one inning later. A line drive by Halvorsen just eluded the glove of the left fielder and turned into a two-run triple. The Eagles relaxed, tacked on four more runs and walked away with a comfortable 6-0 victory.
If things do indeed even up, as Ledeboer predicts, it will be with Halvorsen leading the way.
The 6-1, 190-pound junior is a natural. The ball explodes off his bat when he hits and out of his hand when he pitches. His above-average speed routinely turns ground balls into singles and singles into extra-base hits. He’s hitting .500 through seven games, with five triples, two home runs and seven stolen bases. One local publication called him the “best pure hitter in the state.”
“It’s just amazing to see the things he can do on a ball field,” said Sawtelle, one of only two seniors on the roster for the Eagles, ranked No. 8 in the most recent Class 1A poll. “Just watching him hit and watching the ball fly off his bat. It’s amazing. It looks effortless. He swings and, boom, it goes 380 feet.”
On the mound, his fastball climbs into the low 90s, setting the foundation for a solid repertoire of complementary pitches. In his first 21 innings pitched, Halvorsen struck out 51 batters and threw the aforementioned no-hitter.
“The first time I saw him on the baseball field, I said, ‘This kid’s a freshman?’ ” Ledeboer said with a laugh. “You can tell when he swings the bat, something’s different. You know he’s got God-given talent, but he’s worked very hard and is always focused on getting better. His hands are so calloused because he always wants to put in more swings.”
Halvorsen has been recruited by national programs such as North Carolina and Arizona and has made a verbal commitment to Missouri.
“I loved it there,” he said. “I love the facilities and the coaches. And it’s playing in the SEC, which is pretty big.”
His baseball future set, Halvorsen is focused on helping the Eagles go as far as possible. He knows he’s the primary object of attention from foes but is confident there’s enough talent around him to qualify for the state tournament for the first time in school history.
There’s Sawtelle, a 5-6 sparkplug who’s fully recovered from emergency stomach surgery one year ago, and the versatile Timmy Thurston, who can pitch, catch and play a mean third base. Sophomore catcher Taylor Broderson draws raves for his polish behind the plate and quick, accurate release.
“This team is pretty well put together,” Halvorsen said. “Last year still hurts, but it brings fire to our team. We bond together really well. They’re really good baseball players, and we’re all really close. This is our year.”
Even the coach admits that anything less than a state tournament appearance would be a disappointment.
“I told the team our one goal this season is to be playing on Monday, June 19 at Target Field,” Ledeboer said, referring to the date of the state tournament finals. “Setting high goals can be a little dangerous, but the kids didn’t bat an eye.”