On first day of state tourney, ‘99 Post 18 squad looks back at last title
When former Mitchell head coach Shane Thill threw out the first pitch on Friday at the Class A American Legion state tournament, his former players cracked jokes about his form.
Twenty years earlier, though, it was Thill that was doling out instructions -- all the way to the 1999 state championship, Mitchell’s first in 48 years.
Now that group of men -- some with kids of their own -- gathered at Cadwell Park prior to Mitchell’s opening-round game against Harrisburg, reminiscing about what they accomplished as teenagers.
“They have their own kids and I get to see them as fathers and husbands,” Thill said. “It’s kind of surreal, because it flashes back to when they were teenagers. But I’m very proud of the men they’ve become.”
Post 18 went 36-22 that season, but the run toward the state championship began when lefty Jeff Culhane pulled a ball that bounced off the scoreboard in left field for a walk-off home run against defending state champion Rapid City Post 22.
After coming close but never quite breaking through in previous seasons, the win proved Mitchell was a threat to win a state championship.
Ten years before Twitter was created, Culhane and teammate Kyle Oldenkamp resorted to procuring the radio call from former KORN sportscaster Tom Maxwell. Now, Culhane is the play-by-play announcer for North Dakota State University sports and program director at Bison 1660 AM in Fargo, North Dakota.
“(Oldenkamp) was a stud that night and he held a lineup of future pros to just three runs,” Culhane said. “We were able to get the radio call from the late Tom Maxwell and we would go back and listen to get pumped up for a practice in the middle of July or a doubleheader later that summer.
“It would have been fun if there were some iPhones to capture that moment a little bit better,” Culhane added.
For Josh DeJong, the 1999 state tournament provided an opportunity to redeem himself from disappointing finishes to prior seasons.
DeJong was named the South Dakota Legion player of the year that season, winning three games on the mound during the state tournament as part of a staff that included 2000 Big Stick Award winner Greg Hento (11-6), Seth Myers (5-3), Oldenkamp (7-1) and Chad Goldammer.
Myers was able to get the win in the semifinals to knock Rapid City from the tournament, but DeJong pitched 24 of the 36 innings in the tournament, including the championship game against Yankton.
“When I was a sophomore and a junior, I think I made the last out of the year,” DeJong said. “I felt pretty crummy for the guys that were ahead of me. My senior year, I kind of felt like it was time to do something about it and I wanted the ball.”
The win was the third state championship in Post 18 history, with the other two coming in 1928 and 1951, but Thill believes the 1999 team was able to start a new tradition of winning baseball in Mitchell.
“We had good teams and we had a solid program, but we were never able to get over the hump,” he said. “We finally got there and it gave future baseball players an opportunity to see that it could be done in Mitchell.”