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Paynesville Press - March 29, 2006

Dogs preparing for another baseball run

By Michael Jacobson

After winning the school's first state title in baseball, what can you do for an encore?

One of the first things, according to baseball coach Brad Skoglund, whose Bulldogs won the Class AA state title last year, is realize that the term "defending state champions" is not correct. The Dogs, he said, don't need to defend anything; they don't need to have players guarding the trophy case.

"We've already got that one," said Skoglund of their 2005 state title and trophy. "We have to have the mind-set: 'We're going after another one.' "

The Bulldogs in 2006 will be targeted by other baseball teams, Skoglund knows, but players and coaches need to focus on more immediate goals - improving everyday in practice, navigating a difficult conference schedule, playing their best baseball at the end of the season - if they want to reach the ultimate team goal again.

With the West Central Conference North even tougher with the addition of New London-Spicer and Minnewaska, the Bulldogs, despite their preseason #1 rating, cannot expect to go undefeated. Skoglund believes a 10-4 record in the WCC North might win the conference, he lists Albany as the preseason favorite, and thinks the Dogs should set their sights on getting to .500 in the conference first.

Last year, the Dogs tied for the conference title - with St. Cloud Cathedral - by winning their final four conference games to go 7-3.

At one point last year, the Dogs were 8-5, but they finished the season by winning 13 of their last 14 games and by winning their first state title. In the beginning of the season last year, the Dogs weren't the best team in the state, said Skoglund, but by improving they became the best team by the end of the season.

The Bulldogs graduated five seniors from last year: Chris Beier, Brandon Berg, Justin Butkofski, Mitch Chevalier, and Mike Mueller. Beier and Butkofski were the Dogs' top two pitchers last year and were named All State and All Conference, with Butkofski also named as the co-MVP of the WCC North.

Replacing Beier and Butkofski in the pitching rotation is one challenge for the Dogs this spring. Senior Jamie Paul (5-1, 2.67 ERA) returns as one pitcher for the Dogs. Beier, Butkofski, and Paul pitched 165 of 177 innings last spring.

Senior John Hemingson (eight innings pitched in 2005), senior Derek Stanger (four innings), and senior Ryan Hess (three innings), along with juniors Ben Moser and Chuck Mackedanz (both stalwarts on the junior varsity pitching staff), will vie for two other spots in the pitching rotation this year, said Skoglund. Pitching is crucial because normally whichever team has the better pitcher wins the game, added Skoglund, who credits assistant coach Dick Realdsen with doing a great job with the pitchers.

The key for the Bulldog pitchers this year will be to continue to throw strikes and to rely on the team's defense, speed in the outfield, and ability to score runs to win games.

Last year, the Dogs played error-free defense in winning three subsection games by shutout, with Beier, Butkofki, and Paul allowing only two walks in 19 innings in pitching back-to-back-to-back complete-game shutouts. At state, they allowed 10 runs in three games but scored 30 runs with 33 hits.

One concern for the team this spring, said Skoglund, is their infield defense, which he described as average early last year, which led to the team's middling start. Plus, when Paul pitches, the Dogs will have a new shortstop, and when Hemingson pitches, they will have to use a different catcher.

Butkofski, Mueller, and Beier hit 3-4-5 in the Dogs' batting order last year and accounted for 60 percent (38 of 63) of the team's extrabase hits. While the Dogs have lost some power at the plate, they return great depth to their batting order and have more speed in their lineup, said Skoglund.

"It gives me goose bumps when we run sprints," he explained. "I'm excited. I hope we can find a way to get on base because we have tremendous speed."

One of the benefits of winning a state title is enthusiasm for the sport. The Dogs this year have 38 baseball players, grades 9-12, out for the team. They started practice on Monday, March 20, and have been confined to working indoors on the fundamentals so far, except for brief ventures outside.

"It's going very well. The guys have been working very hard," said Skoglund. "(The players) do have that extra bounce in their steps from last year. We're still feeding off last year's championship. The guys are concentrating. We've had some very good practices. They're eager." With great numbers comes great depth, and the Dogs have strong junior and senior classes this year. There is competition for spots, noted Skoglund, and players will need to understand that they have to accept their roles on the team. The Dogs will have the luxury of being able to pull varsity-caliber players off their bench, but that also means that guys who might be able to start some years will have to content themselves playing part-time this year.

Hemingson (.529) and Paul (.438) led the team in hitting last year and earned All Conference honors. Seniors Trent Hansen (.306), Mark Andrie (.286), and Stanger (.274) also played regularly last year.

Hess played part-time in the infield last year. Seniors Derek Looman and Mitch Mueller also return to the varsity team this year, and juniors Mackedanz, Moser, Alex Naujokas, and Cory Nietfeld were promoted from junior varsity for the playoffs last year.

Other battling for varsity playing time are juniors Sam Bayer, Steve Gerding, and Tyler Zimmerman; sophomore Brett Savelkoul; and ninth grader Shane Kampsen.

The batting order and defense for the Dogs has yet to be determined, said Skoglund. "We're going to be a work in progress," he explained. "We should be a better team by the end of the year. We need to see where the pieces fall."

The WCC North figures to be as tough as ever this year. Skoglund lists Albany, whom the Dogs beat in the first round at state last year and who are ranked #7 in Class AA, as the pre-season conference favorite. St. Cloud Cathedral is ranked #19 in Class AA, and Melrose should be ranked, said Skoglund.

New London-Spicer, whom the Dogs beat in the subsection and section finals last year, and Minnewaska, who handed the Dogs their only loss in that 13-1 ending to their season last year (as well as handing the junior varsity team one of their two losses for the year), moved to the WCC North. This means the Dogs will play the Cats and the Lakers twice, instead of just once this year.

The Dogs have also added a nonconference game against Eden Valley-Watkins, a new subsection foe, to their 2006 schedule, while they dropped games against Annandale, Benson, and Howard Lake-Waverly.

The Dogs' subsection, which they have won four straight years, added EV-W and Litchfield, while losing Annandale, who gave the Dogs their toughest challenge last year, a 1-0 win in the subsection semifinals.

The Dogs' subsection is deeper this year, said Skoglund.

He picked Glencoe-Silver Lake, who were upset in their subsection but return seven starters, as the section favorite.

Returning to the coaching staff this spring is Tom Ludwig as the junior varsity coach. Brent Lieser, who is student teaching in EV-W and who played high school baseball for Browerville and college ball for Central Lakes Community College, is the new ninth grade coach. Lieser is the son of Steve Lieser, a 1975 PHS grad.

The Dogs are scheduled to play their first game next week at home against Kimball on Tuesday, April 4.

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