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2013 Spring Preview: Park baseball - New leaders of the 'Pack

This season, Park senior Russ Damsgard and the Wolfpack hope to improve on last year's 5-17 overall record.

Each offseason brings change but Park experienced a little more this season with John McGowan taking over as head coach for the Wolfpack.

McGowan, a Park graduate and math teacher at Park, has spent the past five seasons as an assistant coach with the program and took over after Kerry Ligtenberg stepped down in the fall.

In the history of Park baseball, there have been only a handful of head coaches -- Granville "Granny" Smith, Bill Kroschel, Reid Tschumperlin, Ligtenberg and now McGowan. In addition, Park graduate Mike Walseth was a co-head coach with Kroschel. McGowan played for Kroschel and Walseth at Park.

Prior to coming back to Park, McGowan, who lives in Cottage Grove, was a teacher at Edina High School and coached football, baseball, and basketball at Edina High School.

McGowan's familiarity with the players will help in the transition after the Wolfpack finished 5-17 and lost 9-4 to Eagan in the second round of the Section 3AAA playoffs last year.

Park showed moments of potential all last season with a 1-0 victory over sixth-ranked Forest Lake and later a first-round 7-6 upset win over fifth-seeded Prior Lake as a No. 12 seed in the Section 3AAA tournament. The Wolfpack endured a nine-game losing streak during the middle of the season last year, but went on to win three of its next five games. Park went on to drop its final three regular season games.

The summer season proved fruitful for the St. Paul Park Legion team, when the 13th-seeded team reached the district title game after upsetting New Prague, Lakeville North and Inver Grove Heights. St. Paul Park eventually lost 5-4 to No. 1 seed Eastview, which won the Class 3A state high school title and 14-1 to Lakeville North in an elimination game to reach the state tournament.

"I think that just brings confidence to the season after having a good summer," McGowan said. "They realize they can play in our league. When they're dialed in and focused they can get the job done."

The Wolfpack will be short on returning varsity starters this season. Park graduated a total of 10 seniors, seven of whom where regulars in the lineup.

Senior third baseman JT Bickel, senior catcher Fletcher Rheault and senior Russ Damsgard are among the returners with varsity experience.

Rheault will also take on pitching duties along with a cast of others. Rheault saw limited time on the mound last season, but along with junior Sam Domeier and others Park will try to build a solid rotation.

"(Domeier) has got good velocity and he's got a lot of movement on his offspeed stuff," McGowan said. "When he's around the zone, he's going to be good. Fletcher is more of a control guy. He keeps the ball down in the zone and locates his pitches. He's kind of smart out there and deceiving. He's working on his offspeed and he's gotten a lot better."

Rheault said pitching might be a struggle early on as starters adjust to a more prominent role this season.

With an infusion of younger players comes athleticism and speed, McGowan said. That's something the Wolfpack will try to utilize this season through aggressive base running and some small ball.

"We've got some fast kids that played JV last year that are going to be very athletic," McGowan said. "We want to be aggressive but smart. We want to take advantage of our speed and try to put the ball in play and advance bases."

Park struggled throughout the season with its fielding and that's something the team wants to change.

"We didn't start too hot," Bickel said. "We kept making a bunch of errors and we just weren't hitting. The final games of the season we were doing pretty good fielding and hitting. We just couldn't put it all together."

McGowan wants the team to focus on making the routine plays in the field this season.

"Our philosophy will be to make the plays we're supposed to make, being fundamental on the field," McGowan said. "If we make some great plays, some top 10 plays, we'll take that but we're going to make the fundamental plays."

Cretin-Derham Hall, Stillwater and Forest Lake are expected to contend for the Suburban East Conference title this season while the section figures to be difficult with the likes of Burnsville, Eastview, Eagan and Lakeville North eying a section title.

Park is set to begin the season Tuesday against North at North High School.