2012 Spring Preview: Pitching should make Park baseball team formidable in 2012The strength of the Wolfpack this season will likely be pitching.
By: Patrick Johnson, Sports Editor, South Washington County Bulletin
Last year, the return of Park graduate and former Major League closer Kerry Ligtenberg as head coach of the Wolfpack created a buzz and an increase in numbers in the Park baseball program. The off-the-field success didn’t completely transfer over to the field of play in 2011 though. However, with a core of talented seniors returning this spring Ligtenberg said he’s excited for year No. 2.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to know the kids a little more this year,” Ligtenberg said. “I sense a little more drive and that they think they can accomplish a little more. I think this group better accomplish more. We have more pitching, more kids that are committed and we have some pretty good athletes.”
Last year, Park finished 11-11 overall after going 0-4 in its first four games and starting the season 3-7. The Wolfpack’s year came to an end with a 4-1 loss to seventh-ranked and second-seeded Eastview in the second round of the Section 3AAA tournament at Eastview High School.
The strength of the Wolfpack this season will likely be pitching. Park has a stable of talented starters led by seniors Kyle Fritz, Drew Flack and Spencer Diedrich. Fritz, who will play for the University of Minnesota-Duluth next year, is the likely ace. However, Ligtenberg said in a best-case scenario Fritz, Flack and Diedrich all have what it takes to be a No. 1 starter on almost any high school team. Diedrich didn’t pitch last year as he was coming off of ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction or “Tommy John surgery” as a sophomore.
In addition, Ligtenberg said Park will be relying on senior pitchers Nate Klika and Zach Koester this season along with up-and-comer Sam Domeier, a sophomore that Ligtenberg said is the team’s hardest thrower.
“He’s got a chance to be something special,” Ligtenberg said. “He’s a good kid, he works hard and he’s very coachable. I wish he had a little mean-streak in him sometimes. We have a couple years to work with him.”
Although it brings back a strong senior class, Park had to say good-bye to 10 graduates, including Luke Wincentsen, who was the team’s top pitcher in 2011, and most of its top hitters: Max Bundschu and Jordan McGowan, who each hit over .300, Cory O’Connell, who led the team in home runs and RBI, while batting .348 and Jordan Jeske, who batted .408, led the team in hits and was third on the team in RBI.
Ligtenberg said he expects Diedrich and Flack to help lead the way in filling the offensive void this spring. He said players like Kuester, senior catcher and outfielder Jake Carrigan, senior infielder Curran Rooker, junior third baseman J.T. Bickel, junior shortstop Russ Damsgard, junior utility player Fletcher Rheault and sophomore infielder Tavier Simmons to be among those who produce at the plate and in the field in 2012.
“Last year we played a lot of juniors,” Ligtenberg said. “Most of those guys are back. We have a couple guys that played JV last year that will contribute this year. We have a few juniors that we’ll plug in and a couple sophomores that will contribute too. The biggest thing is that we play as a team and everybody comes prepared.”
A new rules change this year will likely play a big impact on high school baseball. Minnesota has mandated the use of new BBCOR bats, which are supposed to act more like wood bats and less like the recent aluminum bats. The NCAA implemented BBCOR bats last year and Division I batting average, scoring and home runs per game in 2011 resembled the wood-bat 1970s more than recent years.
Some baseball coaches miss the power-laden aluminum bats, but others say the new bats bring the game of baseball back to the way it was originally designed to play. Regardless, it’s widely believed more emphasis will be placed on pitching and defense and executing the little things instead of numerous towering home runs and warning-track doubles.
“The game will change,” Ligtenberg said. “There won’t be nearly as many home runs. There will be more small ball and running and bunting. We had trouble fielding the ball last year and that’s one thing we’ve addressed this winter.”
Defending Class AAA state champion Burnsville is ranked No. 1 again this preseason and Ligtenberg said the Blaze are the team to beat in the section. However, Eastview (ranked fifth) and Eagan (ranked 11th) will be formidable as well. In the Suburban East Conference, Forest Lake (ranked sixth) looks like the best team, followed by Stillwater (ranked 10th) and Cretin-Derham Hall (ranked 19th).
“In high school one stud pitcher can kind of pull you through,” Ligtenberg said. “I’m hoping we get the opportunity to play Burnsville this season to see where we’re at.”
Park started the season this week with games on Monday and Tuesday against Mahtomedi and Rosemount, respectively. Next, the Wolfpack plays Appleton (Wis.) on Saturday, before opening Granville Smith Field on Monday against Forest Lake.
“The conference is pretty tough,” Ligtenberg said. “But, that’s good for us, so when we get to sections we’re not intimidated and we’re ready to go. The tougher the competition the better for us.
“I like our squad so far. We’re putting in the work. We have a ways to go, but I’m excited to get the season started and to get out there and get playing.”