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College baseball: Ridgewater riding high

The Warriors are heading to a Super Regional that no one thought was possible this season

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Ridgewater's Jaxon Nickels plays catch prior to the start of practice on Monday, May 16, 2022 at Ridgewater College in Willmar.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — The Ridgewater baseball team is loose, relaxed and having the kind of fun you enjoy when you're one of the final 32 teams remaining in the country.
The Warriors are headed to Super Regional XIII in St. Cloud this week. That makes puts them in the final four among NCJAA Division III teams in Minnesota and only a few victories away from a junior college World Series berth.

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Ridgewater's Sam Lenarz, left, and Jaxon Nickels chat at the start of practice on Monday, May 16, 2022 at Ridgewater College in Willmar.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Ridgewater plays Rochester Community & Technical College at 2 p.m. Thursday at the St. Cloud Municipal Athletic Complex's Dick Putz Field. Central Lakes College plays St. Cloud Technical & Community College at 5 p.m. at the MAC. The losers play Friday in an elimination game and the winners face each other also Friday to advance to the championship bracket. The final round is Saturday.
The NJCAA Division III World Series is May 28 to June 2 in Greeneville, Tennessee.
"I think we definitely deserve to be here," said Ridgewater third baseman/pitcher Brad Bickmann, a freshman from Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted. "It's hard to compete with a lineup like ours.
"We're really close and pick each other up. Everything's really clicking right now."
Ridgewater seeks its first World Series berth since 2008, which was under the direction of head coach Dwight Kotila. Kotila led the Warriors to six World Series appearances during his tenure at Ridgewater from 1999-2008, when he left to create the baseball program at Century College in White Bear Lake, where he is still the coach.
Ridgewater, the seventh seed in Region XIII, upset third-seeded Century on Sunday to advance to the Super Regional.

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Ridgewater's Tyler Traphagen follows through on a swing during batting practice on Monday, May 16, 2022 at Ridgewater College in Willmar.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Bickmann said the Warriors' 16-18 record is deceiving. Ridgewater, playing its first games since 2019, got off to a 2-8 start and were 5-14 at one point.
"Being the seventh seed, we don't have a lot to prove, especially playing the three seed (Century)" said Jack Howard, a freshman right-hander from Renville County West. "A lot of people were looking past us."
They're doing it with a lineup that has a slash line of a .294 batting average, .378 on-base percentage and .466 slugging percentage. That's a team OBP (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .844.
Bickmann leads the way with seven homers, 30 RBI and a .415/.485/.729 slash line. Others having noteworthy offensive seasons include Bennett Knapper (2 HR, 16 RBI, .333/.427/.540), Josh Robb (3 HR, 19 RBI, .329/.422/.500), Tyler Flis (3 HR, 17 RBI, .315/.377/.505), Tyler Traphagen (5 HR, 22 RBI, .308/.409/.547), Jadrien Keavy (1 HR, 12 RBI, .291/.319/.395), Nolan Spence (3 HR, 18 RBI, .287/.385/.457), Reece Schwirtz (1 HR, 12 RBI, .254/.365/.365) and Seth Resnick (2 HR, 19 RBI, .248/.335.390).
Head coach Tyler Hebrink noted that Schwirtz hit a home run against Century in a 13-12, 10-inning victory that clinched the Warriors' Super Regional spot. Schwirtz is Ridgewater's No. 9 hitter.
Schwirtz, a right-hander from Glencoe-Silver Lake, gets the start Thursday against Rochester, Hebrink said.
Schwirtz has a 4-3 record in 37-2/3 innings. He has 52 strikeouts and 12 walks to go with a 4.54 earned-run average.
Howard is second on the staff with 37-1/3 innings. He's 2-5 with 22 strikeouts and 13 walks. he has a 7.23 ERA.
Third on the staff in innings is Bickmann, who is 5-1 with a 5.13 ERA. He has throw 33-1/3 innings with 36 strikeouts and 25 walks.
The team's improved pitching has helped with the improved second half.
Hebrink said he expects his team to see Rochester ace Drew Simmons.
The sophomore right-hander from Stewartville is 6-3 with a 3.63 ERA. He has 49 strikeouts and 13 walks in 62 innings. The Yellowjackets also have Alec Dietl, a sophomore left-hander from Foley who is 6-1 with a 3.57 ERA.
Rochester and Ridgewater have not met this season. The top-seeded Yellow Jackets are 28-12, including 14-2 in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference South Division.
They bat .367 with a .454 on-base and .553 slugging percentage. Zebastian Bolduc (8 HR, 46 RBI, .481), Blake Schilling (3 HR, 41 RBI, .447), Gabe Sepulveda (5 HR, 35 RBI, .409) and Carlos Martinez (7 HR, 29 RBI, .403) lead the way.

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Ridgewater head baseball coach Tyler Hebrink addresses his players at the start of practice on Monday, May 16, 2022 at Ridgewater College in Willmar.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

St. Cloud (21-11) and Central Lakes (28-13) are a bit more familiar to the Warriors, who finished 8-8 in the MCAC Central. Ridgewater went 2-2 against St. Cloud and 1-5 against Central Lakes, though there were two one-run losses in that record against the Raiders.
Hebrink believes in his team. He calls it the closest he has been a part of and that includes World Series teams he was a part of while an assistant coach in St. Cloud.
The players agree with the assessment. Being together for another week is one reason for their joy and continuing that into a World Series berth would be even better.
"That'd be crazy to be able to go to Tennessee and play," Howard said. "Another week with these guys and no school is great.
Said Bickmann: "It'll be cool just to make it."

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