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Stingers gearing up for summer

Even though the playing field at Bill Taunton Stadium is buried with snow, the Willmar Stingers are constructing their roster for the 2011 season, signing four players and also signing pitching coach Tyler Shepple for another season.

Pitchers Ricky Knapp of Florida Gulf Coast University and Taylor Thomas of Kansas, as well as outfielders Jake Foley of Florida Gulf Coast University and Jordan Brown of Kansas will join seven holdovers from last season's 39-31 team that missed qualifying for the playoffs by percentage points in its inaugural season in the Northwoods League, the largest summer collegiate baseball league in the country.

Stingers manager Matt Hollod told the team several months ago that he would return. Shepple recently said he will return for a second season.

Shepple will have several new arms to work with this season, as well as two returning right-handers in closer Jacob Barnes of Florida Gulf Coast University and starter Michael Jahns of Northwestern University. Shepple was a seventh-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers as a pitcher, but a shoulder injury ended his professional career after two seasons. He currently operates an indoor baseball training facility in Denver and Seattle, while also training athletes in sports performance.

"We're very excited to have coach Shepple back for another season," said Stingers co-owner Ryan Voz. "As a former pitcher, minor-league prospect; he brings a wealth of knowlege with him."

The Stingers had a team ERA of 4.54 under Shepple last season.

Knapp and Thomas are highly-regarded right-handers who expected to make an immediate impact with the team.

Thomas, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore, struck out 49 batters in 48Zc innings in his freshman season with the Jayhawks. He went 4-1 with a 4.47 ERA. Thomas, a native of Overland, Kan., pitched in the Southern California Collegiate League and helped the Palm Springs Power go 33-4.

Knapp, a native of Port Charlotte, Fla., was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 44th round of the major league draft. The 6-foot, 190-pounder played in the Florida State High School All-Star Game as a senior when he posted a 5-3 record and a 1.42 ERA. Knapp also batted .489 with 12 doubles and 20 RBI. He is the son of current Detroit Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp.

Knapp is expected to be in the starting rotation with Florida Gulf Coast University this spring as a freshman.

Brown Jr. is a 5-11, 175-pound left-handed hitting speedster. The left-handed hitter, a native of Blue Springs, Mo., was selected to play in an Elite ESPN High School Baseball Traveling All-Star team. He was among 26 players chosen out of 300 that tried out. He is the cousin of Josh Childress, who plays for the Phoenix Suns in the NBA.

Foley is a 6-0, 175-pound left-handed hitter. He batted .410 with four home runs and had an on-base percentage of .587 in the leadoff spot at Charlotte (Fla.) High School. He is extremely quick and has exceptional range in center field.

The other players returning from last season's Stingers' team are shortstop Carter Bell, third baseman Mitch Delfino, first baseman Eduardo Gonzalez, outfielder Sean Dwyer and catcher Anthony Bemboom.

The Stingers, who averaged just over 1,000 fans per game last season, will open the 2011 season on June 1 against the Thunder Bay Border Cats.