WILLMAR — Drey Dirksen may have felt the pressure of joining the hometown Willmar Stingers of the Northwoods League last season after finishing his freshman season at Augustana University in 2020. One year later, Dirksen re-joined the Stingers as an improved athlete with more talent, and confidence, than ever before.
The catcher/pitcher has played in 30 games for the Stingers this season and is batting .193 (21 for 109) with 11 runs, 11 RBI, seven walks, four doubles and three homers.
On the rubber, Dirksen has pitched four innings, three against the La Crosse Loggers on Wednesday, and has not allowed a hit or a walk. He has struck out eight batters.
When catching, Dirksen holds a fielding percentage of .957.
Dirksen shed some light on how it feels to be returning to the Stingers this season.
“I feel a lot more mature this year,” he said. “I know what to expect. Last year, with COVID and college, I just didn’t get that much experience.
“Then coming here to the Northwoods League, it was kind of like a wake-up call. But now I have that underneath my belt coming into this year … This year, I just feel like I’m just a whole different player and person going into it. I’m a lot more social and confident with my playing performance, just really having fun this year.”
Dirksen came into the Northwoods season after having completed his sophomore year with the NCAA Division II Augustana Vikings. He batted .317 (20 for 63) with 16 RBI, 11 runs, five doubles, six walks, two home runs and a triple in 23 games played.
The Vikings finished the season 36-13 overall, including 27-9 in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
Stingers manager Al Leyva, says he has seen an improved player in Dirksen, compared to the freshman he saw in 2020.
“You know, he’s really just elevated his game this past year,” he said. “Going into his sophomore year at college and he really grew as a person. His work ethic has also changed and doing just a great job.
“Even though this is only his second year back with us, he knows me, he knows how we operate and I think he’s kind of done that a little bit where he’s taken charge and that’s helped us.”
Despite feeling like a better overall baseball player, Dirksen believes there are still more improvements to be made.
“I think my weakness last year was definitely just staying comfortable and confident with catching. I think this year I feel a lot more confident when catching,” he said. “Pitching, same thing. Got a little bit more confidence with it this year.
“With hitting, you know, hitting is still hit or miss,” Dirksen added. “I mean, I’ve seen the ball well, just nothing is happening for me right now. But I know it’s going to happen eventually. I’m just going to keep grinding and keep my head up and keep working hard.”
From a management standpoint, Leyva says he has seen a big improvement when Dirksen takes the mound.
“His work ethic has just been dynamite for us this year. Especially on the mound he’s working on that secondary pitch and he’s always had a live fast ball,” he said. “But he’s really worked hard with his pitching coach to learn that second pitch and you saw that (on Wednesday.)
In terms of his biggest improvement, from Leyva’s point of view, that comes in the form of Dirksen’s leadership abilities and his chemistry with his teammates.
“He’s done a really good job. This is his second year but he’s only a sophomore. I think his leadership skills, he may not have thought about him being a leader. But he deserves to be a leader,” he said.
Dirksen described what it’s like to share the field with his Northwoods League teammates.
“It’s awesome. I mean, it’s such a grind but you’re doing it with all of your other teammates and you make some amazing friendships that are going to last a very long time,” he said. “Just getting to know so many different people from different areas and bonding with them, it’s just awesome.”
Leyva says the future could be bright for a player like Dirksen.
“He’s a pretty good pitcher. He’s a pretty good catcher. It’s just going to depend on what’s going to be best for him to get to that next level,” Leyva said. “When you throw 93-94 from the right side, that’s pretty good. But he’s also a really good receiver and catcher and he’s really worked hard with his batting … He’s hit some balls really, really well.”
Dirksen says his goal is to improve within each game he plays and with each practice the team has.
“My goal is to just get better every day and work hard. Win or lose, as long as we’re having fun as a team and we’re doing what we should be doing I think that’s all that matters,” he said.
The Stingers play the Bismarck Larks at 6:35 p.m. Saturday and 4:05 p.m. Sunday in Bismarck.