While many of the area’s spring sports are ramping up slowly in the first week of competition eligibility, three of the four baseball teams will have at least one game under its belt after just three days. Zumbrota-Mazeppa hosted its first game of the season Thursday on the first possible date of game action, while Red Wing and Lake City are in action Saturday.
Those early games will have added emphasis this year as well since it’s been two years since these teams have played competitive baseball. A short American Legion season in the summer provided an opportunity for some of the players to get live action in during that pause, but for many teams some early growing pains are expected. To get you prepared for the opening games all the way through to the postseason, the Republican Eagle talked to area coaches about the key areas to focus on in the weeks ahead.
Lumps will be taken early
With two years between their last competition, a little rust is to be expected in all facets of the game. For most of the area’s baseball coaches, there is an agreement that there’s more than inconsistent play to deal with — there’s also going to be a learning curve for a significant influx of players with hardly any varsity experience.
Only Zumbrota-Mazeppa is fortunate to have a large core of seniors. Red Wing and Lake City return just two and Goodhue brings back four. Meanwhile the Cougars will put six seniors on the field — five of which have varsity experience.
For Z-M then, the early-season struggles should be limited with so many returning veterans. That core consists of Willie Holm III, Ethan Kovars, Tanner Gates, Kaleb Stensland and Jake Mehrkens.
“The senior group is pretty cohesive, they're a good group of leaders,” Z-M head baseball coach AJ Yusten said. “They're pretty determined, and I know they want to have a successful season.”
Red Wing, while not senior-loaded, still returns plenty of experience this year.
“We’re young but a lot of them played young,” Red Wing co-head coach Kyle Blahnik said. “We have two seniors this year, but a good majority of the juniors at least had some varsity experience as ninth graders from a couple of years ago.”
For Lake City and Goodhue, much of their returning experience comes on the mound so batting and defense could be a step behind as their younger players get acclimated to the challenge of varsity pitching.
Pitchers are further along than expected
A common theme among the area’s teams is that although varsity experience is scarce, pitching depth is prevalent. Between the four teams, arguably all of who would have been considered the ace of the pitching staff last year is returning this season. Specifically, Drew Ball of Red Wing and Logan Vogel of Goodhue are pitchers to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
“Drew Ball is going to be good for us. On the mound in the varsity game, they’re not tested yet but I think that they should be fine,” Blahnik said. “Just kind of putting it all together and getting out there and getting some experience.”
Z-M and Lake City don’t necessarily have the dominant staff ace, but depth runs deep.
“When I look through our juniors and seniors, I see about 10 guys that can contribute on the mound,” Yusten said.
Lake City head baseball coach Perry Iberg echoed that sentiment and touted his depth as well.
“We have a lot of arms and pitching depth,” he said. “Not only that but the arms are further along than I would have guessed.”
For these four teams to jump out of the gates with some early wins, it’s a huge benefit to have a strong pitching staff to carry the team while the bats begin to wake up as the season progresses.
Competition within teams should be fierce
While the pitching depth will breed its own competition with so many arms vying for innings, the relatively small amount of locked-in roster spots everywhere else means competition will be fierce for playing time.
With only two seniors on the roster, Lake City has a wealth of younger players including seven juniors and 16 freshmen and sophomores combined. Goodhue is in the same situation with a small senior class but a ton of athletic underclassmen ready to prove themselves.
“This younger group is just so athletic. Our strength this year is definitely going to be athleticism,” Goodhue head baseball coach Logan Thomas said. “And they’re competitive, they don’t want to lose and are so coachable.”
That mentality of guiding younger players up through the ranks by being coachable and maintaining their competitive edge is something that Red Wing has done well throughout the years and something Blahnik thinks will rear its head this year as well.
“We’ve kind of hung our hat on competing in everything we do internally, and then that leads us to better results when we compete against other teams,” he said. “There’s no opportunities handed to you, everything is worked for. There's always a younger guy coming, who is gonna compete and kind of pushes those guys from behind.”
Enthusiasm outweighs everything
No matter what the results are on the field, or the precautions needed to take place to ensure safety from COVID-19, the vibe in the first two weeks throughout all of the teams is relief to be playing baseball again.
However, playing the season does come with some caveats. Players and coaches will be required to wear masks while on the field and in the dugout. While in the dugout, social distancing needs to take place so it’s likely that players will extend down the foul line to remain six feet apart. Each team will also only be allowed to touch their own baseball. The fielding team will use their own ball and take it with them after their half inning, and the opposing team will then bring their own baseball into the field for the second half of the inning.
These requirements have not put a damper on the mood of the teams though in the first weeks of practice.
“They show up excited, but also I think they realize how lucky they are to have a season right now,” Yusten said. “I think they're really taking advantage of it even more than a regular year. I think they've realized that it's a privilege to have a season now, and they're really grateful to have it.”