By Chris Schafer
Fans of the care-free shoot-out type baseball games should look someplace else this season because the teams in Morrison County are stressing defense as opposed to trying to win slug-fest games.
Each of Morrison County’s four local teams listed defense as one of their key strengths heading into the season and there is good reason. Whether it is the talent of the Royals, the depth of the Pioneers, the experience of the Flyers or the adaptability of the Patriots, every team should be very adept at frustrating opposing batters.
Being able to channel a team’s own bats may just decide who will be the pick of the group in a sport that is always very strong in Morrison County.
Rusty Gwost’s Royalton Royals should come into this season with the bats swinging.
The Royals return 10 letterwinners from an offensively-talented team that finished with a 16-4 record last season. But should the bats take time finding themselves, Gwost is confident the Royals will be able to win ball games with defense and pitching. “We have seven pitchers who I think will contribute this year, our whole outfield is back and our top three pitchers,” he said.
A team with this much depth doesn’t appear to have any flaws and Gwost’s biggest concern heading into the season is not possible physical errors but mental ones.
“We need to stay healthy, get mentally tougher and learn to play well when things don’t go our way early in the game,” Gwost said. “Last year I felt we lacked the ability to play for seven innings. We need to work on that and learn to finish stronger. Baseball is so mental and it will always be a challenge, but this year’s team may be successful if they really compete and have heart.”
For the Royals a successful team is one striving for a strong playoff run and perhaps even a state tournament appearance. Gwost will strive to insure his team maintains a playoff intensity throughout the year.
“Since we stumbled in the playoffs last year, we need to make every game a big one and get tougher mentally. If we want to get back to a strong playoff contender, every game better be a big one,” Gwost said.
Pioneers Coach Dave Rocheleau is also striving for team consistency from his club in Pierz. The Pioneers finished last season with a 10-11 overall record and a 7-7 mark in conference play.
Pierz possesses the potential to improve on those marks with 17 returning letterwinners coming back, including 11 seniors.
“Our leadership should be a key this year,” Rocheleau said. “We could start a senior at every position; we should have a good defensive team.”
The Pioneers will need that strong defensive play as they look to develop their pitching and add more consistency to their hitting game.
The Pioneers always have good, close games against conference rival Holdingford whom they open against on April 5 in the Metrodome.
Little Falls opens its season against Long Prairie on April 4. The Flyers return eight letterwinners from last year’s team which finished 8-14 and placed fourth in Sub Section 8AAA.
Returning senior letterwinners Steve Budke, Josh Flavin, Jake Kluver and TJ Ringwelski should lead the team.
Like the Pioneers, John Hanowski’s squad will stress sound defensive baseball as it seeks to develop its pitching staff. “If that happens we could be a very good team by playoff time,” Hanowski said.
“Our offense will be much improved from last year,” he added.
The Flyers will be a young team but Hanowski knows his group is experienced beyond their years. “Our kids have played a lot of baseball,” he said.
Experience will be crucial as Little Falls prepares for another season of competing in the tough Central Lakes Conference. Hanowski expects Brainerd, St. Cloud Tech and Rocori to be the teams to beat in the conference.
Upsala/Swanville Coach Ken Solarz knows his USA Patriots is the team to beat this season in the Prairie Conference.
The squad returns eight letterwinners from a team that finished last season 20-8, was named co-conference champions, section champions and state tournament entrants.
The return of seniors Justin Lampert, Mike Solarz and John Fuchs means USA will return three of its four starting infielders from last year’s team. Juniors Matt Voss, Joe Binek, Tim Johnson, Monte Abeler and Cory Defoe will also be counted on to help the Patriots defend their title.
If USA is to succeed in its title defense, Solarz says finding that leadership will be key. “Our seniors should know what it takes but, until they are put in the position, you never know.”
While USA grows its leaders, Solarz expects his team will be a very capable, solid, competitive unit. “I have a good player at each position and they have proven they can play good baseball,” Solarz said.
The Patriots will need that type of play to defend their title against conference and county rival Royalton who will seek to dethrone them. The Patriots and the Royals play three times this season; their first game is April 20 in Upsala.