Preview: Blue Devils will lean on freshmen
Published 9:24 pm Friday, March 9, 2012
As the Riverland baseball team opens its season in Vero Beach, Florida this week, it is looking to do something it hasn’t been able to do the past two seasons — surprise people.
The Blue Devils went 31-14 last season but missed out on the NJCAA Division III World Series for the first time in three years. This year, the team will feature a lot of new names, but that doesn’t mean they’re inexperienced.
RCC head coach Scott Koenigs expects his team to play mostly freshmen, but a lot of those players are transfers from larger schools as the team has nine players who transferred from other schools to come to RCC.
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For the first time in awhile, the Blue Devils are not ranked in the preseason polls and they may not be a bad thing.
“For the most part we’re new and nobody knows much about us,” Koenigs said. “We’re going to sneak up and we’re definitely a top four team in the region. They don’t know what we have for transfers.”
Jason Kezman, a freshman catcher from Caledonia, Wis., said he has seen plenty of talent around him so far. He just hopes it blends together.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys from a lot of different areas from the country and even other countries,” Kezman said. “We were all pretty good high school players, so we’re all real confident in our abilities. We came together and realized that we have to gel as a team and if we come together we’ll be a pretty solid group to reckon with.”
Ben Schaben, a DH and first baseman, and outfielder Will McKnight both transferred to RCC from Wayne State. They went from a four-year school to a two-year school, to get a chance to get playing time for a good team.
“It’s a well known school and we were just looking for a program to play baseball and continue our careers,” Schaben said. “I really like the program, it focuses on strength and fundamentals. I think we have plenty of talent and we have the skills. We’ve just got to put it on the field.”
McKnight said he didn’t know too much about RCC, but he was willing to follow Schaben for a chance to play with the Blue Devils. He’s especially ready to compete in Florida over the this week, where RCC will compete 11 games in nine days.
“I can’t wait to get out of the cold and get into some nice baseball weather and play some good teams to see what we’re made of,” he said.
RCC will face a tough schedule when it heads down south as it opens with the No. 7 ranked team in NJCAA Division II and all of the teams they play will play in Florida are serious about baseball.
Koenigs is quick to point out that RCC lost seven games in its Florida trip last season, and then lost seven games the rest of the year when the team got back to Minnesota.
“We don’t worry about our record with this trip,” Koenigs said. “We’re going to lose some games down there, but we’re not going to lose many when we get back here. If you play well, you’ll be in the game and if you don’t, you’re going to get smashed.
Overall, Koenigs is pretty pumped to see what his team can do this season.
“I feel good about the team,” he said. “These are a lot of guys that are going to be putting up numbers over the next two years. We’ll be playing about ninety percent freshman, but they’re talented.”
RCC’s home opener is April 5 with a doubleheader against Central Lakes.
POSITION RUNDOWN OF BLUE DEVILS
The Riverland baseball team’s annual trip to Florida serves two major purposes. It gives the team a chance to match up with top-notch competition and it gives RCC head coach Scott Koenigs a chance to analyze his roster.
Here’s where some of the Blue Devils could be playing this spring.
Matt Boswell, a sophomore from Austin, Texas, is making the move from shortstop to first base this season. Boswell hit .397 as a freshman and should get most of the starts at first.
Others competing for time will be Victor Claudio, a switch hitter from Puerto Rico, Braden Hunkins, a sophomore from Almond, Wis., Ben Schaben, a freshman from Monticello, Minn., and DJ Taylor, a freshman from La Crescent.
One of RCC’s top recruits, Michael Knutson, a freshman from Jefferson, Wis., should slide into the starting role on day one and it’s likely he’ll stay there for a while.
“He’s a really gifted baseball player and he’ll be a standout here for two years,” Koenigs said of Knutson. “He’ll have all kinds of scholarship opportunities when he’s done here, both academically and athletically. He’s got one of the best swings that I’ve seen here.”
Donte Bledsoe, a freshman from Rapid City, S.D., and Jamey Adams, a sophomore from El Paso, Texas, who hit .357 last year will serve as backups and Pedro Martinez, who is from Kenosha, Wis., will backup all of the infield spots.
“Pedro can play anywhere in the infield and he gives us flexibility and Donte is very, very talented,” Koenigs said. “Our middle infield is fun to watch and to see them turn double plays is very good.”
Freshman Jorge Davilla, who is from Villalba, Puerto Rico, is the clear favorite to start if he’s eligible. But due to his transfer status, Davilla may not see the field this season.
“He’s an incredible baseball player,” Koenigs said of Davilla. “He’ll either be a superstar for us this year or next year. Either way he’ll be a standout for us.”
Bledsoe will fill in if Davilla cannot play this season.
Adams, who played mostly second base last season, is the favorite to see most of the innings.
“He’s got a great glove, a great attitude and he’s a hard worker,” Koenigs said of Adams.
Martinez, Claudio and Wabasha-Kellogg freshman Eric Sandstrom could also chip in.
Southland grad Chris May, Will McKnight, a freshman from West Vancouver, Canada, Joel Hollow, a freshman from Racine, Wis., and Carter Guthmiller, a freshman from Lyle-Pacelli are all in the running for playing time.
“We don’t really have starters, we’ll platoon a lot of guys,” Koenigs said.
In center field, Hayfield grad Tyler Krekling fronts the list of contenders.
“He just gets good jumps on the ball and I’ve watched enough games of his to know he’s going to get it done in the outfield,” Koenigs said of Krekling. “Plus he’s got a good eye at the plate and we can use that.”
Austin grads Mike Tindal and Quinn Yocom could also play center, as well as May.
Aaron Palmer, a freshman from Brampton, Canada, played against the Blue Devils in Florida last season while on the Ontario Terriers, and now he’ll see big playing time in the outfield for RCC.
“He did great things against us,” Koenigs said. “He covered some ground and made some throws.”
May, McKnight and Yocom will also compete for time at right field.
Jason Kezman, a freshman from Caledonia, Wis., is the frontrunner to see most of the innings.
“Has great instincts and he makes some plays behind the plate,” Koenigs said of Kezman.
Austin grad Jacob Hines, who started at Vermilion last season, will likely serve as the backup.
RCC could see as many as six players step into the DH spot and contribute.
Claudio leads the list of candidates, along with Hunkins, Andrew Schunck, sophomore from St. Clair, Mich., Schaben, Taylor and Kenny Stelter, a sophomore from Forest Lake, Minn.
“The DH spot is pretty full, we’ve just got to find enough at-bats for those guys,” Koenigs said.
The team’s clear-cut ace, Sixto Saurez, from Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, will hopefully be healthy to keep that spot this spring.
“He’s had some arm issues and we don’t know what’s going to happen right now,” Koenigs said of Saurez. “We hope we get him back, he’s a pretty dirty left-hander and he’s tall and lanky with a lot of movement on his fast ball.”
Connor Hurst, a left-handed freshman from Madison, Wis., will also see innings at the top of the rotation.
“I love his mentality. He’s got a lot of big game experience and he’s got good stuff,” Koenigs said.
Kyle Gorsuch, a freshman from Rapid City, S.D. and Cody Meyer, a freshman from Lyle-Pacelli, are expected to be in the starting lineup.
“Kyle’s probably our hardest thrower and Cody Meyer’s looking really good on the mound,” Koenigs said. “We changed his grip on his curve ball and he loves it and it’s comfortable. He’s got some late break and he’ll be a top of the rotation guy.”
Schaben, Michael Osmundson, who was RCC’s No. 5 starter last season, and Marcus Kiewel of Rapid City, S.D., may also get some starts on the hill.
“We think we have about five or six quality starters that can beat most teams,” Koenigs said. “We’ll have guys that will throw strikes and compete against anyone in the conference.”
RCC will look to Austin’s Brady Klingfus and Preston Higbe to provide depth in the bullpen.