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Northwoods League: WIllmar's Roberts surges to HR lead

Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Willmar second baseman Kenny Roberts wallops a two-run double against the Alexandria Beetles on Tuesday at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar.

Willmar Stingers' second baseman Kenny Roberts is hitting home runs at a near-record pace.

Just past the halfway point of the Northwoods League season, the University of Alabama junior has already set the Stingers' franchise record for home runs in a season with 12 longballs, overtaking Blake Shepherd, who hit nine in 2011.

But more impressively, Roberts is keeping pace with the all-time Northwoods League single-season homer record of 20, set by Mankato's Shaun Cooper last season.

Roberts started slowly, and through the end of June only had five home runs, but a recent power-surge started to push him up the leaderboards.

Beginning with a two-homer game June 24 at Mankato, he's cracked nine home runs in just over three weeks, including a second two-homer game at Mankato on July 14.

But Roberts said he doesn't go to bat trying to hit it out.

"I feel like hitting involves hitting the fastball," he said. "Of course you have to hit off-speed when you get behind in the count but I just hunt the fastball."

Stingers' manager Matt Hollod said some changes to Roberts' swing have allowed him to drive those fastballs with more regularity.

"He's really made some improvements," Hollod said. "We made a little adjustment with his back elbow, keeping it down. When it gets above his shoulder he has less reaction time and it's tough to catch up to fastballs."

It hasn't been an easy road for Roberts, though.

After two stellar seasons at Meridian (Miss.) Community College, Roberts struggled in his first year with Division I Alabama, hitting just .162 with two home runs as the Crimson Tide's starting second baseman this spring.

"It was tough," he said. "We struggled as a team, I struggled individually -- it was just a grind, and I really didn't enjoy it."

Hollod remained confident in Roberts, though.

"I knew what he could do in junior college," Hollod said. "When he went to Alabama, I didn't expect (the batting average) to be that low. I knew he had the power, though. It had to be something ... when you get that low there's a hole in your swing, and maybe we found it with the elbow."

Along with the 12 home runs, through Wednesday's game, he was batting a respectable .270 with a .393 on-base percentage, and was among the league leaders in slugging percentage (.613) and RBIs (37).

His performance for the Stingers is more in line with his sophomore season at Meridian CC, when he batted .399 with 12 home runs, a .473 on-base percentage and a .725 slugging percentage.

Now, heading into his senior season for Alabama, Roberts said the improvements he's made in Willmar should carry over.

"Coming up here I'm trying to find my swing," he said. "I feel comfortable at the plate and I'm seeing the ball really well.

He also said if his senior season goes well, he would like to play professionally after his college career is over.

"I've talked to couple scouts up here this summer and a couple at Alabama," he said. "If I have a good year I have a chance to play pro ball."

But for now, Roberts will continue to help the Stingers make a playoff push.

"The sky's the limit," he said. "I feel like I could hit 30 (home runs) if I had enough games. I'm very confident in my swing right now."

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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