Far from Home: Blue Devils get help from out West

Published 5:59 pm Monday, April 6, 2009

They came from out West, they came unnoticed and they’ve delivered big for the Riverland baseball team.

It all started two years ago when RCC head baseball coach Scott Koenigs received an e-mail that changed his team in way’s he never would’ve imagined.

It was a simple request from Rapid City, S.D. A parent wanted Koenigs to take a look at his son, who played baseball. That man’s son eventually chose another school, but Koenigs did land three Rapid City players on his team after inquiring about Western South Dakota.

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Two of those players (second baseman Chris Lindemann and outfielder Kyle Starkey) have become key cogs for the Blue Devils, who are off to a 14-5 start this season, and both will likely sign to play at bigger four-year schools next season within a month.

Now Koenigs has brought in three more Rapid City recruits, giving him six total players from the land of the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.

“Now I’m actually recruiting it pretty hard because of the success that Kyle and Chris have had here,” said Koenigs. “I can’t say enough about Kyle Starkey and Chris Lindemann. They’re both the type of players that coaches love. They play hard all the time and they’re quiet and respectable. They play baseball the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Starkey and Lindemann also played a big role in landing the three new Rapid City recruits — Ryan Palmer (2-0, 2.42 ERA, 22K), Zach Vliestra (1-0, 3.00 ERA), and Mitch Jaeger (2-1, 2.65 ERA), who are amongst RCC’s top five pitchers.

A place to play together

The main influence that brought the original three recruits to Riverland, which is over 500 miles from Rapid City, was a camaraderie between Starkey,who is hitting .463 with 18 RBIs this season, Lindemann and reserve outfielder Corey Feicket. They all played Legion baseball together for Rapid City Post 320.

“When I came to see the school I really liked coach a lot and the facilities were nice,” Starkey said. “It was also a place were us three could come together and play, which was what I wanted to do.”

This year’s recruits came in similar fashion, as Palmer brought in Jaeger and Jaeger helped bring in Vliestra, who transferred to RCC from the College of Southern Idaho, a Division I Junior College.

“Ryan drug me out here after I had decided I wasn’t gonna play baseball again,” Jaeger said. “He woke me up and got me out here. You need a friend’s support when you (move so far from home) and having these guys here helps a lot.”

Palmer and Jaeger played together at Rapid City Central High School, while Vliestera and Jaeger played Legion ball together at Rapid City Post 22.

Palmer’s reason to come to RCC goes back to Starkey, who played with Palmer at Rapid City Central.

“I love playing with Kyle. He’s a gas and he’s a real good baseball player,” Palmer said. “He was a big reason for me coming out here and we’ve always played well together.”

A hidden treasure

While he was glad to land some of his team’s best players from so far away, Koenigs was surprised there weren’t more colleges scouting Rapid City.

“I’m a little surprised more schools don’t recruit over there and try and get those kids,” Koenigs said.

Starkey said the distance plays a big factor and the options to play college baseball are limited in S.D.

“There’s not a lot of schools out there and there’s no junior colleges that play baseball. This was probably the closest place that gave us a chance to play,” he said.

Besides playing with his friends, Lindemann’s biggest reason for coming to Riverland was simply a chance to lengthen his baseball career.

“It helped knowing we had a good shot to play early on,” said Lindemann, who is hitting .349 with 12 RBIs this season. “I’ve always thought about playing baseball at the college level and the driving distance doesn’t really bother me.”

Although he is still working on some recruits from Rapid City for next year, Koenigs’ free reign over the West has probably ended as some other MCAC schools have picked up on the talent in Rapid City.

“I know for a fact that a couple of the conference teams went over there after seeing the success that I had with Kyle and Chris last year,” said Koenigs. “Now I’m losing recruits and it’s a little bit tougher for me.”

The tradition

Baseball is huge in South Dakota and few things are larger than the Rapid City Post 22 Legion baseball team. Under the direction of Austin native Dave Ploof, Post 22 — where Jaeger and Vliestra played — has won 32 state championships, including 18 in a row at one time, and a National Championship in 1993.

“Baseball is life. That’s just the way it is there,” Palmer said.

It doesn’t get much bigger than when the two Rapid City Legion teams — Post 22 and Post 320 — meet as thousands of fans will come and watch a match-up that usually only happens in the state tournament.

“(The rivalry) was insane, you’d have 4,000 people watching whenever we’d play them,” said Starkey, who once played for Post 320. “Everybody brought they’re ‘A’ game and it was always a good game.”

But now that Starkey is teammates with some of his former rivals, there are no hard feelings.

“It’s like we never played against each other. The rivalry is pretty much only during the summer,” he said.

Starkey said baseball was always on people’s minds in Rapid City and a player couldn’t go to the grocery store without talking about their team.

The Rapid City players on Riverland’s roster are hoping their teamates from Minnesota will take baseball just as seriously.

“I think they’re starting to realize (how important baseball is to us) and they’re starting to come around,” said Jaeger.

Koenigs for one, thinks the baseball loving attitude is big for his team — especially when it comes to fund-raising.

“I love the fact that baseball is big there and it’s a big part of their life,” he said. “They’re veterans at the fund-raising stuff that goes along with baseball. When we have to raise the $800 a student to go down south, that’s pretty much nothing to them. Because they’re used to raising $1,500 to $2,000 a summer for all the trips they take.”

Bringing in the wins

After a big year last season, the Blue Devils are off to another hot start with their Rapid City players contributing big.

“(The winning attitude) just carried over (from SD). You never want to lose,” Starkey said.

Vliestra, who Koenigs said could be best outfielder he’s seen in his seven years at RCC, is happy with his decision to come to RCC and he wants to get in the thick of the season.

“We just can’t wait to play another game and it’s going well. We have a real good team this year,” he said.

The Blue Devils are hoping to compete for a state title and earn a national tournament berth.

“Coach has told us that we want to win state and we think we have the guys to do it,” Lindemann said.

A good fit

As far as fitting in with their Minnesota counterparts, the Rapid City players have had no problems in that category. They’ve gotten along and blended in quite well.

“If you don’t like Kyle or Chris you need to look in the mirror. They’ve kind of set the mold coming in from Rapid City and they’re as nice as they come,” Koenigs said. “The younger guys like to have fun and I have to keep them in line a little, but they’re great to have around.”

Riverland will host Hibbing Thursday for a 2 p.m. doubleheader.