The Champlin Park baseball team is coming off a season in which it won the Northwest Suburban Conference title, while also winning a section championship en route to a runner-up finish at the Class 4A state tournament last season.
Despite having gone through those experiences just one season ago, few outside of the Champlin Park dugout felt the Rebels would be able to top senior-dominated Minnetonka in the season opener April 8.
Champlin Park was able to make a statement in its first game of the season, as the Rebels topped the Skippers 3-2.
“That was a great way to start the season, for sure,” Davis said. “We opened up last year against Minnetonka, too, and we were able to beat them last year.
“We have only a couple starters returning, so I’m sure folks didn’t have high expectations for this game, but I know we did, the kids sure did and we played well.”
While the Rebels won the game, Champlin Park was no-hit by the Minnetonka pitching staff.
“Strangely enough we managed to get no-hit but we won the game,” Davis said. “We hit the ball real hard, they out-hit us 7-0, but we were able to get some sacrifice bunts down to move runners to scoring position and we capitalized on an error.”
Senior Cole Albers pitched six and one-thirds innings in the victory while striking out three and walking one.
“He had three strikeouts and one walk against a very powerful lineup in Minnetonka that put up 12 runs against Elk River Thursday,” Davis said. “Cole came out and he was Mr. Steady for us on the mound and he kept hitters off-balance with his change-up.
“They have two or three Division-I hitters in their lineup and he was able to handle them just fine. We kept him out there for a hitter or two too many, but he’s a competitor and he wanted to finish it out.”
Sophomore Braden Higgens got the final two outs for the save.
“Braden came in and got his first high school save in his first varsity game,” Davis said. “He faced the top of their order, too.”
Without having recorded a hit, pitching and defense guided the Rebels to victory.
“Pitching and defense can’t slump,” Davis said. “Our pitching was great, our defense was great, but our hitting wasn’t there.
“We manufactured a few runs, but defensively we need everyone at the top of their game, and that’s pretty cool.”
Davis believes the win over Minnetonka showed the Rebels will need every player on its roster to step up and perform this season.
“We’re going to need everybody that is on our varsity team,” Davis said. “We talk about embracing the role they’ve been given, being the best that they can be, so we need all 14 guys to be at the top of their game to compete in the Northwest Suburban Conference and to compete for another section championship, which is absolutely what we have our mind set on.
“We need our RBI guys, which right now are Joey Simon, he’s hitting in the five spot and Quinn Viktora is hitting in the four spot, to be able to drive in runs for us.”
While Champlin Park lost many of its players from last season’s state title game run, 2016 starters Albers and fellow senior Zach Loven return to lead the Rebels.
“We still have a core of kids that were with us last year in Cole and Zach, and they were a huge part of our team last year,” Davis said. “They have been down that road, so to speak, so their leadership has been huge.
“We have some youth, we have some young kids that haven’t been in big games quite yet, but they’re working hard. They’ve got good leadership in Cole and Zach.”
Around Albers and Loven is a talented group that includes new leadoff hitter Cal Hanson, who Davis believes might be the fastest player in the conference. Junior Anthony Pikula, who relieved departed senior catcher Derek Smith during the 2016 American Legion baseball season, will take over behind the plate as the Rebels’ new starting catcher.
“He has had a chance to observe Derek and Derek Smith came back for a couple of practices to work with Anthony and a couple of our other catchers to pass on his knowledge,” Davis said. “It’s been pretty fun, we’ve had a group of seniors come back during their breaks or weekends off to help a little bit.”
This new group of Rebels will look to build off what the graduating class of 2016 accomplished, while also hoping to replicate the success of last season’s team.
“They want to leave their mark on the program like our last group of seniors did,” Davis said. “They want to keep the bar high where it is now and push it further.
“Guys have been waiting for an opportunity, they were behind a talented class last year.”
Champlin Park will play its next game of the season against Coon Rapids at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, April 13, at Champlin Park High School.
Contact Chris Chesky at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @MNSunSports or @SunSportsChris.