Baseball preview: Eagles expect to soar high on the diamond

Fridley starts season 3-0
by Matthew Davis
Contributing Writer


Totino-Grace spent last season on the heels of Class AAAA state runner-up Champlin Park.

The Eagles went 16-9 and tied the Rebels for the Northwest Suburban Conference title and then fell to the same squad in the Section 5 championship. This season, the Eagles hope to have another competitive run.

“The outlook for this year is optimistically hopeful,” Eagles coach Mike Smith said. “We have some really great kids and hopefully they can compete together and have some fun.”

Totino-Grace senior Nolan Neilson makes a diving catch for the Eagles. Neilson and company will look to build on a 2016 section-runner up season this spring. (Submitted photo)
Totino-Grace senior Nolan Neilson makes a diving catch for the Eagles. Neilson and company will look to build on a 2016 section-runner up season this spring. (Submitted photo)

Dylan Dubuque returns to the pitching mound for the Eagles. He had a 6-0 record and a 0.651 ERA in 43 innings last season. Pitcher Zach Jezierksi will be looked to step up on the mound after posting a 3-4 record in 2016. Jezierksi had a 2.568 ERA over 46.1 innings.

“We hope to be able to pitch and play defense well, and we have a few guys with some speed,” Smith said.

Totino-Grace lost a key pitcher in graduate Alec Spevacek who went 5-2 with a 1.56 ERA in 5.1 innings last spring. Spevacek now attends the University of Minnesota.

The Eagles also have a hole to fill at catcher with Jens Rataczak graduated. He batted .260 last season and could make big defensive plays.

Totino-Grace has some key batters back with short stop Kyle Halverson and Will Rog, who switches between first base and designated hitter. Halverson hit .272, and Rog hit .292 with three home runs and 16 RBI.

In the season opener, the Eagles got a strong hitting performance from senior catcher Charlie Waters with two hits and two RBI in an April 8 loss to Benilde-St. Margaret’s 5-4.

Totino-Grace fell behind early 2-0 but tied the game 2-2 in the fourth inning before giving up three runs in the fifth inning. Six errors by the Eagles on defense proved costly.

The Eagles had Northwest Suburban Conference games scheduled Tuesday at home against Osseo and Maple Grove Wednesday on the road after press deadlines. Next, the Eagles (1-0) return to action April 18 at Coon Rapids (0-1) at 4:30 p.m.

Fridley starts 3-0 after big 2016
Building on promising season in 2016, Fridley has a strong start going.

Caleb Brandt drove in three runs as Fridley beat Greenway 6-3 to go 3-0 in the young season April 8.

The Tigers scored six runs on just three hits and bounced back from a 3-1 deficit after two innings. Noah Couwenhoven’s two RBI helped the Tigers’ winning cause.

Winning pitcher Evan Shaw went the distance with 10 strikeouts in seven innings. Shaw allowed one earned run, three hits and one walk.

It completed a 3-0 start on the heels of a 17-7 season in 2016 when the Tigers reached the section finals and lost to Mahtomedi. That marked the farthest the Tigers have gone since 1985. Expectations remain high.

“I think this year we should have a very competitive team,” Tigers coach Dan Nalepka said. “We return eight starters from last years team as well as all of our pitching. We hope to improve on last year’s success and contend for the conference title and make a deep run in the section tournament.”

Fridley has the momentum going already, which started with a 12-7 season-opening win over Breck April 4 with three four-run innings. Adam Craine drove in a team-high four runs for the Tigers.
Fridley also downed St. Paul Como Park 11-1 April 6. Couwenhoven struck out 10 batters and allowed no earned runs.

Couwenhoven, a junior, had a strong season in 2016 with a 5-3 mark and a 1.861 ERA with 67 strikeouts. Shaw, a sophomore, also shined last spring with the most wins by a Tigers pitcher in a season at 10-2 along with a 1.75 ERA and 71 strikeouts.

Key hitters back look just as strong. Nelsen, a junior infielder, went .343 last season and set Tigers season records for runs at 31 and stolen bases at 33. Brandt, a junior outfielder, had a strong 2016 campaign with a .294 average and 11 RBI.

Fridley will need to find a way to replace graduated second baseman Carson Hauge who went .312 in 2016 and drove in 20 runs.

“Carson was a great leader for the Fridley baseball program,” Nalepka said.

The Tigers had Robbinsdale Cooper scheduled on Tuesday after press deadlines. Next, the Tigers visit Columbia Heights Thursday at 4:30 p.m. for the Hylanders’ season opener.

Irondale looks to build, falls in opener
Led by RBIs from Jake Spencer and Dan Swanson, Irondale rallied from 4-0 down at Waconia to take the lead but fell 7-5.

“We did a great job of overcoming a tough start,” Knights coach Noah Nesler said. “We were down four at the end of first and eventually played back into a tie at five by the fifth inning. We had opportunities from the beginning to drive runners in as we left 3 players on third base in the first four innings.”

Spencer drove in two runs and Swanson had one RBI in the April 6 loss. Pitcher Carter Jorgensen threw three strikeouts.

“After the first inning, [Dylan] Irving really settled down and was able to pitch more efficiently,” Nesler said. “Our hitters were able to work the count and get the opposing starting pitcher to a high pitch count early in the game and we took advantage of this in the middle innings.”

Nonetheless, the Knights put together a competitive showing on the heels of a 4-18 season in 2016. Besides Jorgensen, the Knights return fellow pitcher Irving and center fielder Carson Schicker.
“Our team outlook is to improve every day and play with a desire to win,” Knights coach Noah Nesler said. “When you win four games, the player’s mindset needs to be right before we can be successful on the field. With the team getting older and more mature, we can hope to.”

The Knights will need to alleviate a key loss on offense in leading hitter Wyatt Smith to graduation. Top starting pitcher Nate Ostlund also graduated.

Irondale had its Northwest Suburban Conference opener against Blaine scheduled Tuesday and Park Center Wednesday after press deadlines. The Knights visit Bloomington Jefferson on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

“Jefferson will be a game of similar teams that are working to find their identity,” Nesler said. Overall, we won’t be worried about anyone that we play. We need to figure out who we are and how we can perform on a daily basis, regardless of the opponent. Jefferson will be tough. They have always been a great program and always seem to have a few star players that are difficult match ups for us.”

Hylanders return key talent
Columbia Heights has ample key players back from a squad that went 8-10 in 2016.
The Hylanders return one of their top pitchers in Dylan Lentz and one of their best batters in Bobby Hosch.
Columbia Heights opens the season Thursday against rival Fridley at 4:30 p.m.



Contact the Sun Focus sports writers at [email protected]