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Willmar Stingers open 2nd Northwoods season tonight

(Tribune photo by Rand Middleton) Willmar Stingers' manager Matt Hollod, cetner, goes over how to handle bunts with his pitchers and infielders at a practice Tuesday evening at Swansson Orange Field in Willmar.1 / 2
(Tribune photo by Rand Middleton) Kyle Fischer, a right-handed pitcher from New Ulm who will be a sophomore next year at St. Cloud State, warmed up with with long tosses at the Willmar Stingers' practice Tuesday evening on Orange Field in windy conditions.2 / 2

Most movie sequels fail to entertain a viewer as much as the original. That's not likely to be the case when the Willmar Stingers unveil Part II of their Northwoods League product today.

The Stingers, which averaged just over 1,000 fans per game in their inaugural season last year, have high expectations that the 2011 version will be even more fulfilling to fans.

"We've made a lot of improvements at the ballpark," said Stingers co-owner Ryan Voz. "We now have better seating in some of the areas where the fan's view was partially blocked before like along the first-base line and right behind home plate."

Willmar city workers were grooming the field Tuesday in preparation for tonight's opener against the Thunder Bay Border Cats. Game time is 7 p.m. Another worker was putting new fence along the third base viewing area.

"We'll be ready with everything for tomorrow's game," Voz said on Tuesday with winds swirling the dirt around and whipping the flags in center field. "Just a lot of little things left to do yet. I hope the winds die down, though."

The Stingers will also have a lot of new faces on the team to go along with the seven players returning from last year's team that went 39-31 and missed qualifying for the playoffs by percentage points. Players arrived on Sunday to get acquainted with each other and to view Bill Taunton Stadium. The first formal practice was on Monday night.

"The ballpark is just beautiful," said shortstop Jason Leblebijian, a Bradley University sophomore from Arlington Heights, Ill. "To think about playing before a sellout crowd almost every night is exciting. We only had about 200 fans at each game (at Bradley). I met the players (on Sunday) and they are all very friendly and you can tell they are ready to work hard and get started. It's similar to when I first played in college. It's exciting, but the nerves are there, too. So you just want to start playing."

One of the biggest improvements to the ballpark is the new plaza along the first-base line. Last year, some seats were obstructed by the first-base dugout because bleachers were in a low area. This season, the area was elevated with landscape blocks all around and a concrete base. A fence was placed in front of a large seating area that will have barstools and a counter, giving the patron the feeling he/she is right on top of the action, similar to the seating that was in place along the third-base line last season.

There area also new speakers outside the stadium in the picnic area, 17 large pennants of each team in the Northwoods League attached to the outside fence that can easily be seen from 22nd Street Southwest that runs in front of the stadium, 14 Stingers flags outside the outfield fence and additional cameras for viewing games via webstream.

"It's much easier getting ready for the opener once you've been through it before," said Stingers co-owner Marc Jerzak. "But there are new players and new staff members, so there's a learning curver there. But we're confident everything will be ready. It's exciting to be starting up again."

The Stingers will play 35 home games and 35 games on the road again this season. There will be a promotion and/or giveaway for each home game. There will also be celebrity guests throughout the season to throw out the first pitch and to sign autographs.

"Playing in this league will definitely step up your game," said Leblebijian. "We'll be playing against some excellent compeition each and every night."

Tickets can be purchased in advance at the office on the north side of the parking lot, or at the gate.