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Stingers re-sign eight players

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WILLMAR -- The Willmar Stingers season opener is still 7½ months away but they have already begun constructing their roster for the 2012 season.

The team announced Wednesday that eight players from the 2011 team that finished 39-31 will be returning for 2012.

The returning players are: Outfielders Pat Stover and Mitch Rowan, and pitchers Scott Lieser, Ben Burns, Kody Gorden, Tanner Banks, Thomas Taylor and Josh Hoekstra.

With the return of Stover and Rowan, the Stingers bring back two of their major offensive producers from 2011. Both players were top 10 finishers in batting average in the Northwoods League and had the two highest averages on the team (Stover at .337 and Rowan at .333).

The pair also had the highest on-base percentages on the team, with Stover getting on base at a .408 clip and Rowan at .430.

Rowan said he thinks he can have another strong year for the Stingers.

I was coming off an injury with a broken hand last summer so I feel like I can start off this summer better," he said. "I think I'll get a stronger start just from being healthy."

Stover brings some pop to the lineup -- he hit three home runs and 10 doubles last season, and drove in 25 runs, even though he only played in 46 of the Stingers' 70 games.

Both outfielders came to Willmar through some good fortune for the Stingers. Stover, a junior at Santa Clara (Calif.) University, played for the Waterloo Bucks in 2009 and 2010 but was a medical redshirt because of health problems in 2010-11 for Santa Clara and only played in 12 games.

Voz said the redshirt was the reason Waterloo didn't bring him back for a third season, and the Stingers were able to sign him last June.

Rowan plays his college ball at Division III Willamette University in Salem, Ore. He was only known to the Stingers because manager Matt Hollod was an assistant coach there in 2009.

"Everyone wants to cheer for the underdog and Rowan probably wasn't looked at by any other Northwoods League team because he's a D-III player," Voz said. "With Stover, we were fortunate to get him and he probably wouldn't have been available to us without his ailment. Both ended up being surprises for us."

Rowan said it was a unique opportunity to play in the Northwoods League and in front of the Willmar fans.

"There's just a lot more repetition (than in college) and having the opportunity to play every day," he said. "It's a different experience playing in front of all those people."

On the pitching side, the Stingers will get three of their heaviest lifters back with Lieser, Taylor and Banks. Lieser led the team in innings pitched (63Zc) in 2011. Taylor was second with 56 and Banks was fourth with 52.

Lieser also led the team in strikeouts (53) while Banks was second (48). Lieser, a junior at St. Cloud State, set a team record for strikeouts in a game Aug. 5 when he fanned 10 against the Mankato MoonDogs.

Lieser said it's his goal to be one of the main guys on the team again, and to hopefully improve his ERA (5.26).

"It's every kid's expectation to be the best," Lieser said.

With the eight returners, the Stingers have already locked up the start of a solid pitching staff and two-thirds of a potential all-star outfield. That leaves an infield that has lost the production of shortstop Jason Leblebijian, first baseman Eduardo Gonzalez and infielder Mitch Delfino.

Gonzalez, who led the Northwoods League in batting average for a short time in August, is a senior at Alcorn State and ineligible to return. Leblebijian, a junior at Bradley, is likely headed to the Cape Cod League, as is outfielder Sean Dwyer, Voz said. Delfino and center fielder Blake Shepherd are headed to other leagues as well.

Voz said that there is a certain amount of rebuilding each year and that bringing back one-third or one-quarter of the previous year's team is pretty typical.

"You want to bring back a core group of guys that can be your leaders," he said. "Hopefully they're the nucleus you can build around. It's up to (manager Matt Hollod), (co-owner Marc Jerzak) and I to put the squad together between now and June 1."

The Major League Baseball amateur draft can also cause the team to lose players, even if they've already committed to the Stingers.

Lieser, Stover, Rowan, Taylor and Gorden will all be draft-eligible in 2012 and, if selected, could potentially sign a professional contract.

"You always have (the draft) factor," Voz said. "You want to get mature ballplayers that can help you. One of the risks is that they're draft eligible."

Rowan said he is attending a pro workout soon, and if he is drafted it would depend on how high he was selected for whether he would leave the Stingers or not.

Several other 2011 Stingers could still return that they will look at in the spring, including pitchers Jake Stinnett and Michael Shreves, but for now they will start recruiting new talent.

Some new players' contracts could be finalized as soon as next week, according to Voz.

Lieser said he wanted to return because of the team and community as well as the benefits of the Northwoods League.

"Going out there and playing every day is a whole different aspect of the game instead of a few weekend games," he said. "It's kind of like the minors where you play every day. I just had a great time. That was the biggest thing showing up every day and seeing how the fans appreciate it."

Ben Brewster

Ben Brewster covers the Willmar Stingers and other area sports, as well as laying out the daily sports section cover for the West Central Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @benbrewster.

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