Baseball: Valuable trip south for Cards
The weather, believe it or not, was nicer in west central Minnesota than it was in Omaha last week. But a trip south to Nebraska offered the Willmar High School baseball team something it couldn't get at home: playable fields.
Rain cut the preseason trip short for the Cardinals, but head coach Tom DeBoer still saw immense value in bringing his squad down to Omaha. It not only gave the team a chance to play intrasquad games and get a head start in getting acclimated to live-game situations, but players were able to compete for position battles, as well as take in a high-level baseball game at the location of the NCAA College World Series.
"We only ended up getting in two days with the rain and ended up coming back early," said DeBoer, whose team opens April 10 at Hutchinson. "But it was still a valuable experience."
A young team looking to find pitching depth and get up to game speed at the varsity level, the Cardinals won't turn down any chances to get better.
Part of that meant taking in a game at TD Ameritrade Park between Creighton and the University of California, Davis.
"We got there earlier to see them warm up, to watch how they took batting practice and infielders and outfielders and cutoffs and their routines," DeBoer said. "A lot of them had never seen baseball at that level. This was high-level, intense stuff."
The other benefits came with the Cardinals on the field, rather than sitting in the bleachers.
"It was beneficial for us and our batters to see live pitching and to have our fielders see live reps on ground balls," DeBoer said. "We brought enough guys to field two teams. It was an intrasquad setting. The way I looked at it, we were able to put guys out there that are battling for positions and see them in action."
There are plenty of position battles for the Cardinals, who are looking to improve on a 3-18 season last year in which they allowed twice as many runs at they scored. Those battles, DeBoer says, indicate that the team's strength is found in its depth.
"Our team strength this year is that I think we're going to be pretty balanced," DeBoer said. "We don't have five really good players and four average players. We've probably got 13 guys, 14 guys that can see action at multiple positions. That depth is going to help push our guys to get better because of the competition at practice."
That isn't to say Willmar doesn't have top-end talent, however. Center fielder Brayden Sunder and shortstop Jon Broman both return after earning All-Area honors last season. Sunder posted a .429 on-base percentage, while Broman batted .310 with a .388 OBP.
"Those are two of the most important positions on the field where you need strength," DeBoer said. "Up the middle, catcher as well as shortstop and center. They're both skilled, they have varsity experience from last year and the year before."
On the mound, the Cardinals will put together a rotation featuring Garrit Kooistra, Brandon Elseth, Grant Bangen, Kaden Kessler-Gross and Bryan Weidemann. DeBoer added there could be other players that could possibly break through the rotation, as well.
The new pitching rules instituted in MSHSL baseball for this season will alter how games are played on the mound. Pitchers that throw over 75 pitches require three days of rest, with two days of rest mandated for outings between 51 and 75 pitches, and one day for outings of 31 to 50 pitches. The daily maximum is 105 pitches.
"You have to have more guys to pitch than before, and you have to have a plan," DeBoer said. "I can't go into a game not knowing who my relievers are going to be. I have to be aware of the 30 pitch barrier. If they cross over 30, then they require rest."
An ACL injury to Tyler Johnson put a dent in the Cardinals' pitching depth, as the senior was poised to be atop the pitching rotation.
"To lose him, he was our top pitcher last year," DeBoer said. "He's a good baseball player. It was disheartening when I got that phone call in December that we lost him for the season."
Despite a suboptimal 2016 campaign, Willmar responded with an impressive run from its VFW team during the summer, which DeBoer coaches and many players from the high school play on. Willmar won 22 consecutive games at one point in the season and, though it didn't reach State, was ranked fifth in the state.
"Those guys, the last two summers when I coached, had great years," DeBoer said. "I think it's good for them to have some stability in terms of coaching. They know what they're going to be asked to do with me."