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Paynesville Press - June 22, 2005

Little League launches baseball team to title

By Melissa Andrie

Can it just be coincidence that the first youth to play in the local Little League program have won a state baseball title? Many of the baseball players on this year's championship team learned to throw, catch, and hit as Little Leaguers in Paynesville.

This year's seniors, juniors, and sophomores on the varsity baseball team were the first to play in a reorganized Little League in Paynesville as fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. The players testify to the impact it had on their ballplaying abilities.

Little League was, for many players on this year's team, a first experience with organized baseball.

justin The local Little League program was reorganized by high school baseball coach Brad Skoglund and local parents in 1999. Three big changes were a focus on fundamentals, local games between the four teams, and night games so parents could serve as coaches and could come and watch.

Justin Butkofski - shown as a sixth grader playing Little League in 1999 - credits the in-house league with teaching him to pitch.

Little League starts in late April and runs through the end of June each year. Two parents coach each of four teams, which practice and play against each other regularly. Students who have completed fourth through sixth grade are eligible to play and are divided into four teams.

Tim Beier, the father of Chris Beier, knew that Paynesville needed a consistent Little League program because many area towns had them and because the high school team had started more than its share of players from Roscoe, Regal, and Lake Henry. Kids growing up in Paynesville were disadvantaged by not having a good grounding in fundamentals, said Beier.

Rick Paul, the father of Jamie Paul, agreed there was a need for a strong program to teach young players the fundamentals of baseball. In his four years of coaching Little League, he did not allow his players to pick up a bat for the first few weeks of practice, he said, despite the fact that they met three or four times weekly. Instead, the players first learned to catch, throw, and field properly.

Starting basic was important, Paul said, because the players joined Little League with very different levels of experience. Junior centerfielder Trent Hansen said he was "swinging a bat when I was three." Baseball has always been a part of his life, according to senior Justin Butkofski, who remembers "lobbing up whiffle balls in my backyard."

On the other hand, junior Mark Andrie had no experience with baseball before Little League. He started as an outfielder and by his second year was playing his present positionŠfirst base. He said that Little League "taught me everything I knew about the game."

Even those who had prior baseball experience learned a lot from their Little League coaches, said Butkofski - the winning pitcher in Thursday's state semifinal - who first learned to pitch in Little League.

One of the benefits of Little League that Skoglund sees is the pitching experience in the baseball program now, due to limits on the number of innings kids can pitch and requirements that teams use pitchers from each grade.

The former coaches agreed that the effort has been quite successful. Paynesville has matched and even surpassed other baseball programs in the area, said Beier.

Dan Stanger, the father of Derek Stanger and another former Little League coach, noted that when he played baseball growing up few players had the knowledge and enthusiasm that players typically have now.

Another baseball fan who coached the varsity players while they were in Little League is Dale Hess, father of Ryan Hess, who had fun teaching the boys to play as a competitive team.

Butkofski said that the chemistry gained from playing with kids of different ages in Little League helps the high school team play well together now.

When working with his current players years ago in Little League, Skoglund said he did not foresee the team winning a state title, but "you could see that they were competitive. You could see that they had the desire to succeed."

Otto Naujokas, the father of Alex Naujokas, saw potential in the skills of the current high school players when they played in Little League. He stressed that the involvement Skoglund has with the entire baseball program, starting at Little League, gives it stability and is a key to the varsity team's success.

But a good Little League program is not enough to produce state champions, Skoglund added, praising all the work by his players to improve (including hitting, lifting weights, and working out in the offseason; playing other sports; and playing on countless baseball teams).

Beyond Little League, the members of the varsity team have played in Paynesville's Babe Ruth league for seventh and eighth graders, traveling teams for 12- through 15-year-olds, a fall league run by the Ridgewater baseball program, Junior Legion and Legion teams, and area amateur teams. Many of them were members of the Paynesville American Legion team that won the state title in 2003 and went on to participate in the national tournament.

There are "so many intricacies of the game that these guys have picked up because they've played so many games," said Paul, who added that having experience with "big time games" helps the players to stay calm in pressure situations now.

"We tell our players that, 'as coaches we can only make you so good. You've got to put the extra work in to make yourself better.' And they do,' " said Skoglund.

Even when the current varsity players were in grade school, Skoglund encouraged their enthusiasm for baseball, leaving a ball on the field for when they came to the ballpark to play on their own.

Now, relying on the fundamentals they mastered in Little League and their subsequent experiences in baseball, they have secured their spot as state champions.

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