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Northwoods League: No restrictions, big predictions for Willmar Stingers as 2021 season gets underway

Willmar's team officials, workers, coaches look forward to a normal 72-game season with top talent after dealing with pandemic

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Willmar's Griffin Cheney applies a tag after Mankato's Zach Gilles is caught stealing during a Northwoods League game July 30, 2020 from Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — After enduring a short, yet complicated, season of Northwood League baseball in 2020, the 2021 season looks to be a bright one for the Willmar Stingers.

It’s one that certainly has the management, and coaches, buzzing for opening day.

Willmar felt a different type of sting during the 2020 season having played 42 games. In 2021, the Stingers are scheduled to play 36 home and 36 road games for a total of 72 within 77 days.

The atmosphere at Bill Taunton Stadium may have felt differently due to limited tickets because of Minnesota’s state guidelines concerning the pandemic.

Fortunately, as stated by Stingers co-owner Ryan Voz, tickets for all seating options will be available to the public, starting with the home opener at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday, June 2 against the Eau Claire Express.

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“We’re excited to have fans back at the ballpark, see the smiles on their faces, and really get life back to normal,” Voz said. “Being able to provide the entertainment and the fun experience for people at the stadium.

“We don’t have any restrictions going forward. The state of Minnesota has opened up outdoor capacities at the end of the month, starting next week.

“We won’t have any restrictions that will be holding us back from a capacity standpoint so really we'll be back to the way things were in 2019.”

Voz discussed what it means to him, as co-owner, to have no restrictions at the ballpark leading into the new season which begins at 7:05 p.m. Monday when the Stingers open play against the Bismarck Larks in Bismarck, N.D.

“It’s huge. Everybody in the world dealt with this in some shape or form last year. For us to be able to move on beyond it and have fun again at the ballpark, we’re excited.

“I think everyone starts to value everything a little bit more now and appreciate things at a different level. I think even the fanbase, not being able to participate last year at the same level, will even have a stronger appreciation for it this year.”

Al Leyva returns as manager for the Stingers in 2021. This will be his fourth season overall with the organization and his second as manager. The Stingers ended last season 22-20.

“It’s always exciting to get the season going,” Leyva said.

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Voz gave high praise for his returning manager, who has spent nearly two decades within collegiate summer baseball.

“(Leyva) is a great guy. He’s coached summer collegiate baseball for over 15 years ... he truly loves the game,” he said. “He loves being able to just coach good guys that have this type of talent and be a part of a minor-league atmosphere during the summer. (Leyva) does a nice job of working with the guys, traveling with them and he’s a fun guy to be around.”

Currently, with some players still participating with their collegiate programs, the official roster is still under development. However, there are some players that are projected to be fan favorites during the upcoming season.

Catcher Kaden Hopson and shortstop Nik McClaughry of No. 6-ranked University of Arizona are scheduled to join the Stingers following the conclusion of the Wildcats’ season, which recently won the PAC-12 championship. McClaughry is batting .350 with 27 RBI, seven doubles, a triple and a home run. Hopson, a freshman, is batting .150, playing in 20 of 52 games, with six RBI and a double.

“Those two players are fun to watch, very talented guys,” Voz said.

Will Mize, a freshman shortstop from Georgia State, is another player coming to Willmar. Mize was named to the Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American team and ranked fifth in the Sun Belt conference. Mize hit .373 and racked up 17 RBI, leading the stat for all freshmen in the conference, and five homers. Mize ended the regular season on a 11-game hit streak.

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Willmar catcher Drey Dirksen chats with first base coach Matt Caselli after reaching with a single during a Northwoods League game against Waterloo on Aug. 10, 2020 from Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

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Out of NCAA D-II No. 12-ranked Augustana University comes Carter Howell, an outfielder with a batting average of .430 and former runner-up for NSIC Player of the Year, and freshman catcher Drey Dirksen, who graduated from Willmar High School and played for the Stingers in 2020. Dirksen is currently batting .317 for the Vikings with 16 RBI, five doubles, two home runs and a triple.

Brady Counsell, a 6-1 high school senior from Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, and son of Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell, will be looking to join the Stingers this summer. Counsell has committed to the University of Minnesota and will be a shortstop for the Gophers next spring.

For Leyva, aside from yearning for the Northwoods League title, the goal remains the same, getting the players better, and giving the fans a good time.

“Not only do we try to make each of the players better, but we want to bring a championship back to Willmar. And that’s my goal,” he said. “I try to teach (the players) a lot of responsibility within the game and let them play. Like I tell them, ‘I’m going to treat you like a young, professional athlete. I need you to act like one.’”

As for Voz, the excitement starts on June 2, with fans packing Bill Taunton Stadium and a special guest on Baker Field prior to first pitch.

“The thing that I’m looking forward to the most is getting to the home opener here and throwing in the first pitch. Welcoming the fans back into the stadium, having (former Minnesota Twins manager) Ron Gardinhire as our special guest to throw out the first pitch. Just seeing fans come back together as a community at the ballpark and having fun,” he said. That’s the one thing that will bring us the most joy. Bringing the community back together.”

For ticket information, visit the website: www.willmarstingers.com or call the Stingers’ office number at 320-222-2010.

Key dates

(All home games are at Bill Taunton Stadium, Willmar)

* Home opener against the Eau Claire Express, 7:05 p.m. Wednesday, June 2

* Doubleheader against the La Crosse Loggers, 12:05 p.m. and 7:05 p.m. Wednesday, July 14

* All Star Break is scheduled for July 19-21, play resumes Thursday, July 22 at home vs. the Minnesota Mud Puppies at 7:05 p.m.

* Final game of the season vs. Eau Claire Express, 7:05 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14

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Willmar starting pitcher John Bezdicek fires to the plate during a July 10, 2020 Northwoods League game against St. Cloud from Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Patrick Bernadeau / Tribune

Related Topics: WILLMAR STINGERSWILLMAR CARDINALSBBE JAGUARSNEW WILLMAR CARDINALS NEW
Matthew Curry is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune.
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