Area baseball preview: Cass Lake-Bena returns veteran, experienced cast
CASS LAKE - Consistency is difficult for smaller high school athletic programs to attain but the Cass Lake-Bena baseball team seems to be an exception.
This spring the Panthers will be shooting for their sixth consecutive trip to the Section 8A semifinals and, although they are yet to win the title, the Panthers always seem to be in the thick of the chase.
"We never have quite made it all the way to the state tournament but we'll keep trying," said CL-B coach Ken Wittner who begins his 11th year in the dugout this spring.
"We've won the Northwoods Conference championship the last two years and we've been to the section tournament for five straight seasons. And I think we have the talent again this year to make another run at the section tournament."
Cass Lake-Bena's roster will include six seniors and five of them return with extensive varsity experience.
Among that cast are Caleb Fisher (pitcher, shortstop), Wesley Moe (pitcher, third base), Jake Ellis (third and first base), Ryan Erickson (outfield) and Ben Ruzek (second base and pitcher).
The other senior is Alex Stangel who is new to the baseball program.
The roster also includes junior letterman Jordan Collins (catcher) plus sophomore letterwinners Nick Rairdon (pitcher, first base) and Daven Staples (pitcher, shortstop).
Completing the early-season roster are sophomores Danny Fredrickson, Jason Yates, Eric Jones, Brendon Humphrey and Alan Kaasa plus freshmen Anthony Pemberton, Sebastian McFadden, Will Chase and Zach Richards.
Historically, Cass Lake-Bena has been able to score runs in bunches as gappers and the long ball form part of the offensive game plan.
This year, however, Minnesota State High School League officials have decided to use a different type of bat that reduces the power that hitters can generate. As a result, there will be fewer home runs and a greater reliance on station-to-station baseball.
"It will be interesting to see how we do because now the emphasis is on small ball," Wittner said. "We haven't played small ball in years but now it is something that we will have to learn how to do.
"But we're also looking forward to the challenge and to the year," Wittner continued. "We return four kids who pitched last year and we return most of our infield. The talent is there for another trip to the section meet but how we do will depend upon the kids. We could be 5-15 or 15-5 depending upon how much the kids want it."
If a coach can spread enthusiasm for the new season to his squad the Panthers are going to enjoy the spring.
"This is my 11th year and my friends have told me that as long as I have fun coaching the Cass Lake-Bena baseball team I should keep it up," Wittner said. "And last year I had fun. We started out 4-3 and everybody wrote us off but then we won 14 games in a row and made it to the section tournament. And doing that well was very fun."
Joining Wittner on the CL-B coach staff are varsity assistant Brian Michaelson and Tyler Wittner who handles the junior high program.
"We have veteran leadership and a group of ninth and 10th graders who don't have a lot of wins under their belts and it will be interesting to see how they will do," the coach said.
The Wildcats are hoping to build on last year's 2-12 record and leading the charge will be seniors Cody Rush, Chase Holland, Adam Reed, Garrett Forseth, Sean Alia, Ben Molacek and Nathan Ware.
All are returning lettermen and coach Randy Reimer is counting on them to provide the leadership.
"We have seven seniors and that is as many as I've had," Reimer said. "Last year we had one senior and the spring before that we didn't have any."
Joining the seniors as returning letterwinners are juniors Matt Moss and Dillon Smith, sophomores Kyle Kerby, Weston Erickson and Mike Farber plus freshman Austin Moss.
"I try to give the kids who come out for varsity the opportunity to play the opportunity to earn a letter," Reimer said. "We've given this group of players those opportunities and now I think experience and maturity will be a strength.
"During the early workouts it appears that we are shoring up our weaker areas and that we will be competitive this year," the coach added.
Last spring the Wildcats posted only two victories in 14 outings but Reimer believes that Laporte will fare much better this season.
"Working on our offense has been a focal point so far," the coach said. "I see the need for us to concentrate on hitting and it will be a work in progress all spring.
"But we're optimistic," Reimer continued. "I think our infield will be strong and last year we gave some kids the opportunity to pitch and that will help us this season. If you pitch well you are going to be in any game."
Baseball has caught on at Kelliher-Northome as coach Dan Alto was greeted by 32 players in grades seven through 12 during the first few weeks of practice.
"Having 32 kids out should lead to good competition for playing time at all levels," Alto said. "Any time you have competition it is a good thing as all of the players have to push themselves at or above their potential every time they hit the field, no matter if it is practice or a game."
Among the returners are pitchers Joe Schuh (senior) and Christain Jourdan (junior).
"The challenge for them is going to be bringing a consistent effort to the mound each game," Alto said. "If they can do that for us this spring we are going to have a chance in every game we play."
K-N's other senior letterman is Lance Pink while Tim Davison joins Jourdan as a returning junior.
The other returning lettermen are freshmen Nathan Anderson, Dylan Villaran and Adrian Pink.
Among the newcomers expected to see significant varsity action are junior Al Nistler and sophomore Mark Geerdes.
"But these players will be pushed by the incoming freshmen," Alto said.
Included in that list are Mitchell Nistler, Miigizi Wagner, Donald White, Justin Baumgartner, Rory Spears and Shawn O'Neill.
"We look to be competitive this year," Alto said. "No team will be able to take us lightly because we will come to battle each night."
Graduation has taken last year's primary battery but Red Lake coach Jason Niemi is hoping that the Warriors can find another reliable pitcher and someone to take over the catching duties.
"Our key losses from last year are Dave Donnell and Terry Harris," Niemi said. "Donnell was a five-year letterwinner who was our pitching strength and a solid bat in the line-up.
"Terry was our primary center fielder who led the team in stolen bases and runs scored last season."
Matt Johnson is back, however, and the junior was Red Lake's No. 2 pitcher in last spring's rotation. Also returning is junior Joey McNeal who will start the season as the main catcher.
"But we need to find a good second pitcher to go along with Matt," Niemi said. "We also need to find somebody behind the plate who can be our everyday catcher."
This year's senior class includes Lakota Chaboyea (third base), Brendan Beaulieu (first base), Dominick Lussier, Travis Owens (right field), Winter Kingbird and Ben Kingbird (second base).
In addition to Johnson and McNeal, the junior class includes Darion Cobenais (left field) and Joe Johnson while the sophomores are Ryan Holthusen (shortstop), Marcus Beaulieu (center field) and Frank Lasley.
Also on the early-season roster are freshmen Jimmy Jourdain, Dave Cook, William Chaboyea and Russell Kingbird.
"Team leadership roles will be turned over from Dave Donnell to Brendan Beaulieau and Joey McNeal," Niemi said.
"Brendan is a natural leader who is a great guy to have around. Joey will be versatile and will help us out by playing several different positions this season."
Niemi believes that his roster includes a nice blend of veterans and newcomers and he is eager to test his players in game situations.
"We have a nice mix of upperclassmen and youth on this team," he said. "It will be a challenge to gain experience and be competitive on a day-in and day-out basis. We will grow and learn from our mistakes and, in the end, we hope to improve each day."
Dwight Kalvig takes over the reins at Blackduck this year, replacing Rick Olhava who compiled a 54-29 record during his four-year tenure.
Last spring the Drakes won the Northwoods Conference's North Division and lost to Cass Lake-Bena in the conference championship game.
They reversed that decision in the sub-section title game, however. Blackduck finished 19-5 after losing in the section semifinals.
"This season the team is looking to be competitive game in and game out," Kalvig said. "There is a strong nucleus of talent returning that is eager to take the field and contend for a section appearance and beyond.
"Last season gave the team a taste of postseason competition for the first time in a decade," Kalvig said. "This season the goal is to return to sections and challenge to advance to the next level."
Seniors Cody Bergquist, Aaron Nissen and Luke Krabbenhoft headline the starting pitching rotation along with junior Dylan Weisert. Among the arms in the bullpen are sophomores Trey Volk, Matt Patch and Jake Krabbenhoft.
Battling for infield spots will be Luke Krabbenhoft, Shane Fenske, Jake Krabbenhoft, Nissen, Volk and Weisert. Fenske and Colton Bales are the catchers and the outfield candidates include Patch, Weisert, Galen Martin, Bergquist and Mitchell Sparby.
Jacob Goldschmidt will probably open the spring as a designated hitter or a pinch hitter.
Darris Dahl takes over at Bagley this year and he will assume a roster that is dominated by underclassmen.
Kris Skersick and Nick Neeland are the only seniors on the roster while the junior cast includes Brandon Keena, Dustin VantHul, Jake Rivera, Jesse Dukek, Kyler LaVine, Riley Knutson, Sean LaVine and Zach Thoma.
Among the sophomores are Calvin Larson, Corbin Thoreson, Jacob Skansberg, Kyle Nelson and Landon Peterson.