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Northwoods League: 'Winning happens naturally'

The Stingers will face off against the St. Cloud Rox in the first round of the playoffs.

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Stingers teammates JT Navyac (left), Joey Walls (middle) and Dalton Pearson (right) all smile before taking on the Minnesota Mud Puppies on Thursday, July 14, 2022, at Bill Taunton Stadium.
Michael Lyne / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — When Willmar field manager Freddy Smith arrived in west central Minnesota for his first year with the Stingers, the team got off to a rough start in the 2022 season.

The Stingers dropped five of their first six games and six of their first 10. It surely seemed Willmar was on track to record its second consecutive season under .500.

However, a dugout filled with diverse and unique personalities fueled the Stingers in creating a genuine team camaraderie, helping flip their season around.

From June 10 until the end of the month, Willmar posted a 14-6 record over that stretch to improve its season record to 18-12.

Since July 1, the Stingers have won 28 of 36 games. In that stretch they broke their franchise record win streak, twice.

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Willmar won eight consecutive games from July 8-15 and then dropped one game before winning 12 straight from July 22 to August 1.

The Stingers (46-20) are currently second in Great Plains West Division behind the St. Cloud Rox (49-17) and are the third-best team in the Northwoods League.

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Stingers teammates Drey Dirksen (middle) and Josh Fitzgerald (right) smile before taking on the Mankato MoonDogs on Monday, July 11, 2022, at Bill Taunton Stadium.
Michael Lyne / West Central Tribune

"My goals were not to put a win-loss tag on the team. It's came down to honing in on the players and having an interest in them - being able to work with them toward their goals and how they want to grow," Smith said. "When you have enough guys who are committed to a plan and their development, winning happens naturally."

Sometimes it can take time for a new coach, especially a young one, to figure things out early in a season.

Smith mentioned that his plans and style of coaching involves a high-energy, high-paced structured routine. As a result, it took finding a balance between his players adjusting to him and vice versa.

Clearly both sides found that balance fairly quickly in the season to change the narrative.

With two games remaining in the 2022 season, the Stingers are two wins away from tying their franchise record 48 wins, which was set in 2018.

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"I don't think we would have ever expected that, given a brand new coaching staff and brand new players with a few exceptions," Willmar co-owner Ryan Voz said. "Seeing where we were to where we are now, it's even more remarkable in terms of the turnaround."

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A welcoming environment also helps. Every time a new player joined the team, Smith and Co. formed a circle around the new player, where players had the opportunity to ask them questions to get to know them and make them feel apart of the team quicker.

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Freddy Smith talks to his Stingers before the team competed against the Waterloo Bucks on Wednesday, July 13, 2022, at Bill Taunton Stadium.
Michael Lyne / West Central Tribune

It was clear when talking to Voz, Smith and Stingers center fielder Brett Bateman that a major reason the teams plays so well on the field is a result of everything they do off the field.

The team hangs out frequently outside Bill Taunton Stadium, such as when they go fishing or play games on long bus rides during road trips.

"I'd say that's a main reason why this team has been so special and has had a lot of success on the field," said Bateman, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. "That's what everyone looks forward to, [those connections]."

The Stingers offensive production has been phenomenal all season led by Bateman, who has played in the most games (54) of anyone on the team and leads the team with a .330 batting average of players that have played at least 35 games.

Willmar ranks first in the Northwoods League in team batting average (.282) and RBIs (452) and second in hits (648). No team has struck out less than the Stingers (492), outside of the Minnesota Mud Puppies who have played 34 games.

The Stingers have recorded 504 runs, 357 walks, 172 stolen bases, 129 doubles, 54 home runs, and 13 triples en route to a league-best .812 on-base plus slugging percentage.

"We don't have one guy who has ridiculous numbers on paper. A lot of guys have really stepped up," Smith said of his team's offense that had three Northwoods League All-Stars this summer: Aidan Byrne; Drey Dirksen; and Joey Walls. "It seems like it's a different guy contributing every single day. I think that's the most impressive thing."

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Willmar's pitching staff, led by Stingers assistant coach Michael Newstrom, has been one of the best in the Northwoods League, ranking second in team ERA (3.72) and third in wins (46).

"Our pitching staff has been extremely special," Bateman said. "They've done an amazing job this summer, and hopefully, they can keep it going into the playoffs."

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Stingers starting pitcher Jack Habeck (left) receives advice from assistant coach Michael Newstrom before a game against the Mankato MoonDogs on Monday, July 11, 2022, at Bill Taunton Stadium.
Michael Lyne / West Central Tribune

Habeck, a redshirt sophomore at St. Cloud State University, is tied for the most wins in the league with eight in 11 appearances. He is one of 10 pitchers to throw a complete game, has pitched the second-most innings (68.1) and has the lowest ERA (2.77) of qualifying pitchers.

"Habeck, in my opinion, is the pitcher of the year. He's been the best pitcher in the Northwoods League," Smith said on Tuesday morning. "He's picked us up so many times this season... I'm just grateful to have a guy like that."

And Smith's opinion proved him right.

The Northwoods League named Habeck the Pitcher of the Year on Friday morning as well as a Postseason All-Star. He was also a Mid-Season All-Star.

Willmar had two other pitchers named Mid-Season All-Stars - Sam Malec and John Klein - and the league announced Tucker Novotny as a Post-Season All-Star on Friday morning.

The Stingers will be the second seed behind the St. Cloud Rox in the Great Plains West Division for the Northwoods League playoffs.

The first playoffs game between Willmar and St. Cloud will take place at 5:05 p.m. Sunday at Bill Taunton Stadium. Habeck is likely to start on the mound for the Stingers.

Game two and game three (if necessary) will take place at 7:05 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday at Joe Faber Field in St. Cloud.

"The Rox are a really good team — they're really well-coached and do all the little things right," said Bateman, who is doubtful for the playoffs due to a head injury suffered on Aug. 6. "They have been a formidable opponent all year against us... However, the Stingers could definitely make something happen in the playoffs."

More by Michael Lyne:
Willmar beats Becker 2-1 with an early start on the road.
The Dragons win their fourth dual meet of the season with a 55-46 non-conference win over the Eagles on Saturday.
The Royals overcome a 16-6 halftime deficit to beat the Bulldogs, scoring two second-half touchdowns. Also late Friday, Yellow Medicine East romps past Lac qui Parle Valley, 48-19.
Blue Devils beat the visiting Warriors 25-15, 25-23, 25-21.

Michael Lyne joined the West Central Tribune as a sports reporter in June 2022, following his graduation from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where he graduated with a bachelors degree in journalism and a minor degree in Spanish studies.

You may reach Michael at mlyne@wctrib.com, or by calling (320) 214-4345.
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