Prep Baseball: State champ Warriors keeping level heads
By Tom Larson
Anyone caught up in those heady three weeks would have had to conclude it was not only possible but inevitable.
The Warriors rode a potent offense and some of the most dominant pitching performances in Minnesota postseason history to the title last season, and seven starters from that team – including both starting pitchers – were returning this spring.
Head coach Brian Kingery was aware of those outsized expectations and before this season firmly reminded his talented squad that last spring’s memorable run was just that – a memory.
This is now.
“We let them know that last year’s team won a state title, this year’s team has done nothing,” Kingery said. “It’s a completely different team. We want to make them understand that that team achieved something and you guys haven’t achieved anything.”
That’s frank, tough and yet necessary grounding from a coach who is aware that entitlement can be a ballteam’s worst enemy.
But there’s no denying the Warriors are as fortified for a title defense as a team can realistically hope to be.
In BOLD’s 8-0 postseason run in 2013, left-hander Logan Sandgren and righty Riley Kramer pitched five shutouts while the Warriors’ offense outscored the opposition 69-7.
Sandgren pitched two no-hitters, Kramer also notched a no-no, and Sandgren capped the magical season by tossing a one-hitter in a 3-0 victory over Osakis in the championship game at Target Field.
Both Sandgren and Kramer are back for their senior seasons, as are five other Warriors starters, including top hitter Trevor Nissen. But the 2014 Warriors are, as Kingery noted, a different animal.
First, Kramer is still recovering from shoulder surgery for an injury suffered during the football season. He is just starting to throw from the mound and will be limited to playing third base until May.
Second, the Warriors lost a lot up the middle defensively when two Tribune All-Area picks and solid bats, shortstop Tyler Seehusen and centerfielder Tyler Rock, graduated. Seehusen also was an effective third starter (2-1, 1.55 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 21 innings) behind Sandgren and Kramer.
Third, Kingery points out that, despite its stellar playoff run, BOLD was “an average team” during the 2013 regular season. They limped into the playoffs as a third-place finisher in the West Central South Conference. After starting 7-2, BOLD slipped into a funk, winning just three of its last seven regular-season games, and the Warriors entered the Section 2A playoffs on a two-game losing streak.
“I think there’s a lot of talent in this group,” Kingery said. “There are not a lot of weak spots. But baseball is a funny game and you’ve got to come to play every day. If there’s a day when your guy can’t throw strikes or you get a couple of bad bounces, it’s a different game.”
The players understand this season begins at a new starting line.
“You’re always starting new,” Sandgren said. “Everyone’s got to get to their spots and get a feel for new positions. We’re taking it step-by-step and letting everyone get a feel for everything. New pitchers are coming in, getting a few innings and seeing how they do in game situations. It all starts in practice.”
But if the boys keep their heads about them, look out.
True, gone are Seehusen (.338, 17 RBI) and Rock (.415, 19 RBI, 19 runs and 12 steals), but the rest of the roster still can kill.
First baseman Nissen hit .416, slugged .688, hit two homers and drove in 22 runs last year, and he’ll be the No. 3 man in the rotation until Kramer returns to the mound.
Kramer hit .358 with 25 RBI, and Sandgren hit .292 with 23 RBI. Steady and solid catcher Trent Athmann hit .297 with 18 RBI and led the team with 20 stolen bases.
Lane Stadther, the Warriors’ regular second baseman last year, slides to shortstop this spring, and Brent Grund started games at second base in 2013 and returns to that spot. Grund, who threw effectively in 25 innings last year, will be the No. 2 pitcher behind Sandgren while Kramer winds back into shape.
Ben Steffel moves to centerfield and Tyler Lothert will play right field when Sandgren starts. Austin Weis, who came on strong in the postseason and had the game-winning hit in the championship game, will be in left field.
Kingery said more than half his 15-man varsity roster could be counted on to pitch if needed. That means Kramer won’t be rushed back and Sandgren will pitch only once per week.
“We have eight guys who can pitch and we’ll probably use a lot of them until we get to the playoffs,” Kingery said.
The coach’s patient formula for the regular season worked wonders last spring so there’s no reason to deviate from it.
“My thing isn’t about winning every game during the regular season,” Kingery said. “It’s about putting us in position at the end of the year to make a run in the playoffs. That means keeping players healthy and not over-used.”
So far, so good. The day before late-season snows hit on Wednesday, the Warriors worked out three pitchers – Nissen, Steffel and Weis – and they combined to three-hit Redwood Valley in a 9-0 win.
A week earlier, Sandgren was in a familiar groove, allowing a hit, no walks and striking out nine in a 10-1 win over Morris/Chokio-Alberta. Grund closed out the game pitching three innings, allowing a run and striking out three.
“There’s a lot of confidence on this team,” Sandgren said. “Everybody looks pretty solid. It looks good.”