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Paynesville Press - June 22, 2005

Beating Cathedral provides confidence

By Michael Jacobson

In early May, despite being 8-5, the Bulldogs baseball team had yet to put it all together. "It didn't feel like we'd really played our best," said head coach Brad Skoglund.

Then the Bulldogs traveled to play St. Cloud Cathedral on Joe Faber Field for a conference game and, for the third straight year, they beat the Crusaders on the road. They gave senior pitcher Peter Burg his first loss of the season and defeated the conference-leading and #1-ranked Crusaders 5-4.

That win turned into a pivotal moment in the Dogs' championship season. "That game gave us the confidence to get here," said Skoglund at the state-championship welcome home. "That game gave the guys the confidence that we could beat anybody."

cheering At the start of the year, the players knew the team was capable of going to state, but it seemed like more of a long shot after starting the year 8-5, said junior Jamie Paul. "After that win at Cathedral and the first couple playoff games, we knew it was possible," he said.

Lynn Lieser runs the Bulldog flag in front of the Paynesville fans after the Bulldogs recorded the last out and won the Class AA state title on Friday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud. The cheering of the Bulldog fans, according to coaches and players, gave them goosebumps on the field.

Following that win at Cathedral, the Dogs won 13 of their final 14 games and clobbered the field at the Class AA state tourney last week in St. Cloud (where the Dogs won three games on Dick Putz Field, which adjoins Joe Faber Field).

The Dogs took a 3-0 lead in that May game against Cathedral with an RBI single by junior John Hemingson and a two-out two-run single by junior Mark Andrie in the second inning. But Cathedral answered with four runs in the bottom of the second to lead 4-3.

Senior Chris Beier tripled to lead off the fourth inning and scored to tie the game at 4-4.

Senior Mike Mueller hit a game-winning double down the third-base line in the sixth to plate the winning run, and the Dogs made three great defensive plays in the bottom of the seventh to preserve the win. Junior Derek Stanger caught a liner and fielded a chopper for the first two outs, sandwiched around a single for the Crusaders, and Paul fielded a hard-hit one-hopper for the final out.

The junior varsity and ninth grade teams cheered the varsity players like they had just won a state title on the bus, reported Skoglund and assistant coach Dick Realdsen.

"We said on the bus coming home: 'This game might make the difference in our season.' And it did," said Realdsen.

"Everything started to click," said senior Justin Butkofski of the Dogs' late-season run following that game. "We started playing defense. That was key."

Momentum is a big part of baseball, according to Skoglund, and the Dogs have had it on their side since that game. The win kept the Dogs in the conference race and started a four-game sweep for Paynesville, who finished 7-3 and tied Cathedral for the WCC North title.

The Dogs rallied to beat ACGC 9-3 to secure the top seed in subsections. Then, after losing a meaningless game to Minnewaska 3-1 in their regular-season finale, the Dogs pitched three shutouts to win their fourth straight subsection title and also played errorfree defense.

In sections, whenever the other team scored, the Dogs answered in their half of the inning.

"When we've been behind, we haven't been rattled, we knew we could come back," said Skoglund.

"It seemed like we got stronger (as the year went by)," added Realdsen.

The state title culminates a four-year run since 2002 (when the Dogs made their first trip to state and won the consolation title) where the Dogs have been a state-caliber team. The last two years, however, the Dogs did not win a game at sections.

Last year, in fact, the Dogs started the season 14-1 and rose to #1 in the Class AA rankings. But they finished the year going 5-5 and ended 19-6. After making the section tournament, they lost a close game to Delano (5-4) where they outhit and had fewer errors than the Tigers. Normally, when you outhit and play better defense than your opponent you are going to win, said Skoglund of the tough-luck loss. Another loss to Glencoe-Silver Lake eliminated the Dogs from last year's playoffs.

This year, the Dogs started slowly, playing poorly in an opening-day 4-2 loss to Annandale, and being 8-5 before beating Cathedral in May. But that started a season-ending 13-1 run, culminating in their first state title last week.

At state, the Dogs continued their hot hitting: they scored 30 runs in three games at state and never trailed in the tournament.

Their plan at state was to "do what we do best," explained Skoglund. "Make the other team adjust to us. Throw strikes. Play defense. Be aggressive at the plate and on the bases."

They did just that, winning with all facets of their game in full gear: having three complete-game pitching wins, flashing the leather (especially in the semifinal against Hermantown), and scoring runs with their bats and their feet.

The Dogs ended the year hitting .342 as a team, and it was a total team effort.

Hemingson led the team with a .529 average, going 6 for 7 at state to raise his average above .500. Paul also hit above .400, finishing the year with a .438 average after going 5 for 11 at state.

Six regulars recorded .300 averages this spring: Hemingson; Paul; Butkofski, .389; Beier, .368; Mueller, .368; and Hansen, .306. And every regular hit at least .268 with junior Mark Andrie hitting .286, Stanger hitting .274, and senior Brandon Berg hitting .268.

Like the 2002 team, this year's team had great depth to its lineup and could score anywhere in the lineup, said Skoglund.

"All the way through our lineup, we hit the ball," said Skoglund of their hitting at the state tournament. "One through nine. And we saw good pitching."

Skoglund used a new drill before their first game at state on Thursday. To save energy, since the team would be playing a doubleheader, the guys only took three cuts on Thursday before heading to St. Cloud. But they tracked live pitches without swinging, saying whether the pitch was a ball or a strike.

Whether the result of that drill or not, the Dogs showed great plate discipline at state, said Skoglund. "We didn't swing at bad pitches," he explained. "And we were right on the curve ball, which we didn't do early in the season."

The Dogs averaged 10 runs per game at state, and they averaged nine runs per game during their 8-0 playoff run.

The bats scoring early and often for the Dogs at state set the tone. "The nice thing is we got ahead," said Skoglund.

While the bats made the headlines at state, the Dogs' pitching arms carried them through the subsection tournament and did their part at state, too.

In subsections, Butkofski, Beier, and Paul threw back-to-back-to-back shutouts in beating Kimball 7-0, Annandale 1-0, and NL-S 11-0.

Though none of the three pitchers is overpowering, all three can locate their fastball and change speeds, said Realdsen, who coaches the pitchers for the Dogs. Beier finished the year 10-2 with a 3.35 ERA, Butkofski was 6-1 with a 1.48 ERA, and Paul was 5-1 with a 2.67 ERA.

At state, almost always pitching with big leads, the pitchers could throw strikes with confidence. "Let 'em put it in play and let the defense get it," said Realdsen.

With the Dogs losing Beier and Butkofski to graduation, rebuilding the pitching staff will be one key task next spring. Skoglund said he could have spread the pitching duties more widely this spring, but "it's a lot easier coaching when you can give them the ball and pat them on the back after seven innings and say, 'Good job.' "

In the tough WCC North and to succeed in the playoffs, good defense is crucial, said Skoglund, because you can't afford to give good teams extra outs. A frequent common demoninator among bad teams is poor defense, he added.

The Cathedral win was crucial, too, because the Dogs played great defense to preserve the win.

Skoglund expected the Dogs' defense to be terrific this year with sure-handed infielders like Paul, Beier, and Butkofski and great speed in the outfield with Hansen, Berg, and Mueller.

But, when the team was 8-5, their defense had not really gelled. But they played great defense in subsections and continued making the plays at state. They made every play they really needed to at state defensively, noted Pipestone coach Rick Zollner.

Hemingson, who is great calling pitches, is so good defensively that it changes the way the Dogs can play defense, noted Skoglund. Since teams are afraid to run on Hemingson's throwing arm - no one dared at state - the Dogs' outfielders can play deep and take away extra base hits, said Skoglund. That way, it takes three singles to score against the Bulldogs.

The Dogs not only can score with their bats but with their feet.

A perfect example came against Pipestone in the state final when the Dogs scored their last run thanks to great baserunning. With two outs and runners on first and third in the fifth inning and two strikes on the batter, Butkofski left early from first base and intentionally got caught in a hot box. He avoided the tag long enough for sophomore Alex Naujokas to score from third.

In the section final, the same play caused the opposing pitcher to balk.

"We work on baserunning from Day 1 in practice. To see the guys go out and do that is pleasing," said Skoglund.

"I thought we were the fastest team" at state, he added.

It was especially fun to see Naujokas and sophomore Cory Nietfeld "flying around the bases" at state, said Skoogs. Naujokas and Nietfeld scored 11 runs in the state tournament (10 as courtesy runners for the catcher and pitcher and one as a pinchrunner, the only run for which they got official credit). Team Chemistry
This year's team had great team chemistry, and Skoglund points to manager Matt Bayer as a key component. "As a coach, to have a successful team, you need to have team chemistry. And I think Matt really helps our team chemistry," said Skoglund.

"The guys love Matt. He makes it fun for everyone," added Skoglund.

Butkofski listed Bayer as one of the best things about high school baseball. "He's great," he explained. "He teaches you so much about life." Such as, don't take things for granted, like the ability to play baseball. And to appreciate even the small things in life.

Matt's sense of humor, added Butkofski, helps keep the team loose.

Bayer, who graduated from PAHS in 2004, has agreed to come back next year and manage the team again.

"Team chemistry is huge," said Butkofski. "Everyone is on the same page." Instead of fighting, the players support one another; they just don't want to let each other down, Butkofski added.

Winning aside, said assistant varsity and JV coach Tom Ludwig, this has been the best year of coaching because the players are so fun and hard-working.

"These are a great bunch of guys," added bus driver Marlene Theel, who drove the team again this year after thinking about giving up driving the baseball bus. "Everywhere we went - restaurants, gas stations - they acted like gentlemen. Parents, you can be proud of them."

Having Fun/Working Hard "You know, I've been at this a long time," said Realdsen, who has coached high school baseball for over 30 years, at the welcome home. "They got what they deserved."

"We can have fun with these guys," he explained, "and yet when it's time to work, they're ready. Thanks for a great year: players, parents, fans."

Skoglund said he looked forward to playing games but also looked forward just to going to practice. "The kids treat the game with respect," he said. "They do everything right. They hustle on and off the field."

"They expect to work hard. They want to achieve," added Realdsen. "They want to do well. And they get along well, too."

"The guys want to work. They want to get better. They want to succeed," said Skoglund.

They never complain about drills, Skoglund and Realdsen agreed, even fundamental drills that they've been doing all spring.

"We have improved since the start of the season. That's a tribute to the kids," said Skoglund.

Even after winning a fourth subsection title, the team was not satisfied, said Realdsen. They were happy to win at subsections, but they were still hungry to do well at sections and at state.

"Keep getting better everyday" said Skoglund. "If each individual gets better, our team gets better."

"These coaches are such good coaches," said Berg at the welcome home. "They don't take enough credit for themselves. We wouldn't be here without them."

"They make it fun to play baseball," added Butkofski.

The high school coaches have done "a heckuva good job taking (the team) to their potential," said parent Dale Hess, who was one of the team's youth coaches.

"Skoogs runs an excellent program" and "gets the best out of the team," agreed parent Rick Paul, who added that he was glad his son got to work with Realdsen on pitching.

Skoglund is quick to share credit for the program, citing a total team effort, but will say that the high school coaches have fun together and enjoy working with the kids. He can hardly wait, he added, until next year when the high school baseball season starts again.

Berg wants his children to someday play baseball for Skoglund. "He's just so good," Berg explained. "He teaches the fundmentals so well. I think Paynesville baseball will always be good with him."

All the coaches, Berg added, know how to have fun and yet work hard, echoing words that the coaches used about the team.

Fan Support
At the welcome-home celebration, a number of players and coaches thanked the Paynesville fans for all their support, especially during their playoff run and at state.

"(Before) the state title game, I had goosebumps running out onto the field for infield," said Skoglund. "It was so loud. The fans were awesome."

Paynesville had approximately 400 fans for the state final on Friday. They really "cranked up the volume," said junior Ryan Hess.

"I'd just like to thank all you fans for coming out today," said Beier at the welcome home, which attracted around 100 fans on Friday evening.

"Our fans give us great support everywhere we go," said Paul.

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