by Dan Ruud
The Belle Plaine High School baseball team has a big feather in its cap heading into the 2013 season – it defeated the eventual state Class 2A champion in the postseason last spring.
That’s correct, Holy Family Catholic, which won last year’s state title, was defeated by the Tigers 8-5 in the third game of the double-elimination Section 2AA Tournament. The Fire eventually bounced back to put an end to the Tigers’ five-game playoff run 11-0 on their way to the section championship. Holy Family then breezed through the state Class 2A bracket, outscoring its three opponents by a combined 16-0.
Belle Plaine finished with a record of 14-11 in 2012. The Tigers’ three playoff victories were a welcomed relief after they had bowed out of the postseason in the first round at home to a lower-seeded team the previous two years.
The 2013 Tigers are fresh back from a trip to Florida, where they were able to practice and scrimmage on actual ball fields last week.
“The Florida trip went great. We brought 16 boys down over spring break and we got a lot of good baseball and team bonding in,” said Belle Plaine coach Pat Schultz. “We were there for five days and were able to scrimmage and practice multiple times. It should really be an advantage for us early in the year, especially with the weather we are having.”
Among the graduated from 2012 are all-conference and all-state pitcher/second baseman Trevor Latzke and all-conference first baseman Matt Ruehling.
The Tigers return nine players that started a significant number of games last year. Among them is pitcher and infielder Derek Dahlke, who as a sophomore last year had a .333 batting average, 18 RBI, 12 runs scored and six stolen bases. Nine of his 22 hits were for extra bases. One of those was a game-winning, walk-off home run in extra innings against Tri-City United. Defensively, Dahlke was second on the team in pitching with 30 innings tossed and a 2.33 ERA. He struck out 12.
Also back is all-conference honorable mention recipient and senior outfielder Zach Juaire. Others returning are seniors Cameron Klehr (outfield), Jordan Johnson (catcher), Jack Winders (infield and pitcher), Jayden Howie (infield and pitcher), Nick Eliason (outfield), Jacob Meger (pitcher and infield) and junior Aaron Bigaouette (infield and pitcher). Bigaouette was all-conference honorable mention in 2011.
Also competing for starting spots and/or playing time are senior Kyle O’Brien (first base), juniors Zach Bahr (outfield), Mitchell Nelson (infield), Chase Emmers (infield and pitcher), Colton Hentges (infield), Gavin Dauwalter (first base), Tony Vesselinov (outfield), Troy Gudmonson (outfield) and Ryan Menton (outfield).
Schultz said there are also several sophomores and freshmen who have looked good early on in practice and may compete for playing time before the season is over.
“Practice has gone very well so far. Obviously, being able to scrimmage and practice in Florida has been a huge asset for us in getting our team ready for the season. It has also allowed us a lot of opportunities to observe the players and has led to some great competition. Even with nine guys back with starting experience, we have very few positions where a starter is certain.”
Schultz said one of his team’s strengths this year should be in a very important area.
“Our pitching depth looks to be very strong. Dahlke and Meger both threw a lot of innings last year and look to be at the top of our staff this year. We are also fortunate to have six or seven other pitchers who could get a lot of time on the mound this year based on their performances on B squad and summer ball last year and the work they put in during the offseason.
“Our defense struggled at times last year but improved by the end of the season,” Schultz continued. “We look for that to continue this year and hopefully turn it into a strength. Our team speed is very impressive this year and should be a huge asset on offense and defense. Our hitting is one area that could be a very big strength this year if the guys focus on the little things that they need to do to go from good to great hitters. We are looking to build off our second-half and playoff success from last year and be ready to go early in the season.”
Schultz added that he expects the Minnesota River Conference to be wide open this year.
“A lot of teams return a lot of very good players and some of their top pitchers. I think we should be one of the favorites along with Norwood Young America, Watertown-Mayer, Tri-City United and Jordan. It will be fun to see which teams step up and play well in what could be a short, compact season due to the weather that is delaying the start of the season.”
As of Tuesday, Belle Plaine’s most recently updated season opener is scheduled for next Monday at Tri-City United.