Remembering 2002: Knights bring home first state title

Brandon Streich
Sports Writer
Knights seniors are pictured front from left: Brian Gangelhoff, Loren Beltz, Brian Seidl, and J.J. Helget. Back: Randy Braun, Dusty Mangen, coach Bruce Woitas, Chad Armbruster, Darrin Haala, and coach Brian Mathiowetz.

Entering the 2002 season, the St. Mary’s Knights were coming off of a runner-up finish in the State Championship game in 2001 as they fell to St. Agnes, St. Paul. That loss fueled the beginning of a Knights dynasty that lasted throughout the decade.

The 2002 State Championship for the Knights fueled an impressive run from 2001 through 2007 where the Knights appeared in the State Tournament six times. In those six appearances, the Knights came away as State Champions four times, including back-to-back in 2006 and 2007. The only non-appearance was in 2005 when eventual State Champion New Ulm Cathedral defeated the Knights in the Section Championship.

In 2002, the coaching staff of Head Coach Bruce Woitas and Assistant Coach Brian Mathiowetz welcomed Jeff Cook to the staff for his first year. Adding Cook to the staff made for an impressive trio of coaches to anchor the Knights program.

Although Cook was in his first year as an assistant, the Knights had grown up with him and knew what type of baseball man he was. With a powerful stable of baseball knowledge and IQ, Cook was an exciting addition for the Knights baseball program. A senior in the 2002 season, Dusty Mangen says of Cook, “As far as baseball IQ goes, Jeff was unmatched.” Son Andy Cook understood it was special for his father to be coaching as well. “He was a great resource for many,” he said. While also enjoying his father in the dugout, Cook enjoyed having coaches Brian Mathiowetz and Woitas in the dugout. “Brian helped develop a lot of these players and really knew what made everyone tick, he deserves a lot of credit.” Andy also acknowledged it was special to be a part of Coach Woitas’ first state title. “Bruce knew this team inside and out and put together this winning lineup,” Cook says. “He was able to push us and put together game plans that won games. He had a lot of great teams and deep playoff runs before us and to be on that ‘02 team that got him that first title is an absolute honor.”

Going into his senior year, Chad Armbruster had been a part of many good teams that set up the path for the Knights’ 2002 season. “The 1999-2001 teams set the foundation for our run in 2002,” he said. “In 2001, we had a very good team but the pieces fell apart in the state championship game. Those teams served as an inspiration and instilled confidence that we belonged there.” Armbruster also gave his former coaches a lot of credit. “Jeff brought that old-school mentality and grit to the program that you rarely see at the high school level. If he spoke, you listened.” Armbruster credited coach Woitas’ confidence in his players. “He was primarily laid back and definitely a players’ coach, he was like a human encyclopedia with the rule book.” Armbruster lastly acknowledged coach Brian Mathiowetz’s instruction and motivation he brought into the dugout. “He brought energy and passion to his position and demanded the best out of you.”

Mangen also credited Coach Woitas in his ways of maintaining his pitching staff throughout the season. Although Chad Armbruster and Darrin Haala were the key cogs in the rotation, Woitas also relied upon and developed other arms throughout the regular season to provide the Knights with depth. While Armbruster and Haala led the pitching staff, Coach Woitas also leaned on the arms of Brett Braulick, Mangen, and Randy Braun to pitch a handful of games as well. Amrbruster added to the support of the pitching staff in addition to a solid defense. “Darrin had the gas to get the strikeout at will and could locate pitches with the best of them. Brett[Braulick] had a nasty curveball and an intimidating mound presence.” As we know, all good pitchers are backed up by a good defense. Armbruster continued, “Andy was as solid a catcher behind the plate as you can get. Dusty and Randy were extremely tough outs and solid defensively.”

“Chad and Darrin were definitely the engine that made us go,” says Mangen, “but to win a state championship, it takes more than that to come through in the end.” Mangen says the one big thing that stood out to him in his reflection was the teams attitude and attention to detail that season. “We had a team full of guys that wanted to be at the plate with the game on the line and we had pitchers who wanted the ball.” Like many State Champions, a different player seemed to step up each game, especially when it mattered most. Mangen pointed out Armbruster’s walk-off home run in the opening game of the State Tournament.

Cook says being a part of that team in 2002, the Knights had set a goal at the beginning of the year. “From the first practice this team had the goal of winning state.” After falling in the State Championship in 2001, the Knights had lost a large group of seniors and the first two hitters in their first game against Sleepy Eye Public in 2002 were sophomores Matt Mathiowetz at shortstop and Andy Cook batting second in the catching position. Despite being the younger cogs in the lineup, the sophomores quickly earned the trust of their senior leaders with the way they carried themselves on and off the field. Mathiowetz scored 31 runs from the leadoff spot and hit .407 during the regular season and during Sections hit .625 with five extra base hits. Reflecting on Matt and the season he had as a sophomore after the season, Coach Woitas was quoted, “the talent he has for a sophomore is unbelievable.” Armbruster echoed coach Woitas’ statements, “Matt provided excellent defense at shortstop with his strong arm and was a very smart hitter at the plate.”

Despite an up and down regular season, the Knights confidence remained high. Mathiowetz went down with an injury and the Knights never wavered despite a three game losing streak in the middle of the year dropped their record to 7-6. The team and coaching staff knew that come playoff time, behind the arms of Armbruster and Haala that they were going to have a shot at a championship. “At the end of the day we still had the same goal, win the final game,” said Mangen. The mentality had switched in the State Championship loss in 2001. “Losing that final game, made us realize the only game you need to win is your last.”

The Knights’ first game in the State Tournament was against Mayer Lutheran. Mayer Lutheran at the time had a pitcher by the name of Matt Lane. Lane was a 6 foot 8 senior that threw over 90 MPH and was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the summer of 2003 in the 30th round after a stint at Iowa Western Community College. Lane was drafted again by the Baltimore Orioles in the 48th round in 2004 and did not sign. Lane then attended University of Louisiana-Monroe and was drafted by St. Louis again in the 16th round in 2005.

Mangen said the Knights were not intimidated facing Lane. “We were a team that was not intimidated by velocity.” The Knights history of facing higher velocity pitchers paid off as they scored 7 runs off of the future MLB draft pick. The Knights walked off against Mayer Lutheran on a home run by Armbruster to advance to the second round.

After the thrilling victory over Mayer Lutheran, the Knights faced off with BEST(Babbitt-Embarrass/Tower-Soudan). BEST came into the game with a record of 23-2. With the Knights trailing 1-0 in the fourth inning, Randy Braun hit an RBI double over the outstretched arms of the rightfielder to tie the game. Mangen later scored on a sacrifice fly from Brett Braulick to give the Knights their first lead at 2-1.

With runners on second and third, Chad Armbruster was on the mound and struck out the final two batters of the inning. With the momentum in the Knights’ favor, Braun scored on a double from Braulick. Later in the contest, in the seventh inning, Mathiowetz led off the inning with a triple followed by an Armbruster homerun that was launched through the trees to give the Knights a 5-2 lead. BEST added a run in the bottom of the inning but the Knights advanced to the State Championship with a 5-3 victory.

In the 2001 championship, the Knights grabbed an early 4-0 lead only to lose the lead and eventually become the runner-up in Class A. In the championship game against Menagha in 2002, the Knights jumped out to an early 5-0 lead only to watch it diminish. The Knights went into their half of the sixth inning trailing 8-6. Mangen reflected on that game hoping history did not repeat itself. “I remember sitting on the bench and thinking there is no way we are going to let this happen again.”

In the sixth, Cook got the party started with a line drive off of the first basemen’s glove, but a strikeout gave the Knights just one out to work with. With Darrin Haala and Cook on the base paths, Mangen laced a double to the outfield to tie the game. Now in an 8-8 tie, Randy Braun stepped up to the plate and sent a base hit down right field to score Mangen and give the Knights a 9-8 lead. Now with the lead, Haala shut the door in the seventh inning for the Knights’ first state championship. Haala said after the game, “Nobody can ever take that away from us.” Cook also loved how the community came together to support the Knights after the Indians had won the State Championship in 2000. “The crowds down at state from our community was unmatched. Both baselines packed shoulder to shoulder supporting us no matter the school affiliation. It was so much fun playing in that atmosphere and I will never forget that view of everyone there cheering us on.” The team’s home run leader Armbruster agreed. “The fan support we received from our whole community throughout the tournament always dwarfed that of our opponents. It made me proud to represent Sleepy Eye.” Armbruster is often questioned if sports were worth it. “Absolutely, if I could go back and do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing. To create memories from 2000-2002 with the teammates I shared it with is an opportunity that only comes around once.”

The Knights finished the season with a record of 20-8 and won their final 12 of 13 games. Most importantly, the Knights completed their mission of winning their final game. Their goal in 2002 was Championship or bust. They did not bust.

The Knights celebrate their honors in bringing home the first MSHSL baseball state championship in program history in 2002.