One year removed from a four-win season, the Park Center baseball team has set a goal to try to change its fortunes this season.
Park Center lost its former core of players in departed seniors Kyle Schnobrich and Dan Hansen, but the Pirates believe they have found a new core in sophomore trio Tanner Stein, Riley Pederson and Mitch Maier. The Pirates also have seniors Brenton Brakke, Keller Tollefson, Mitch Doebler, Mitchell Knox, Ryan Stachowski, Sam Dixon and VaShaun Miller to take pressure off the sophomores.
“I can’t say enough about Stein, Maier and Pederson,” Park Center head baseball coach Nathan Johnson said. “They were up as eighth-graders and they had a hard time, so now it’s their third year on varsity.”
With a new core in place, Johnson has tried some new things this year, including finding ways to have more fun at practice, such as MLB Day where the players can practice donning the cap or jersey of their favorite professional teams and players, while also focusing more on staying relaxed. Johnson has also decided to not name captains this season so he can teach the players what it means to be a captain while employing the group as a collective to be a group of leaders.
“The players are buying into the mentality we’re teaching,” Johnson said. “They say they’re not going to quit, they’re relentless, they’re hustling everything out and making that other team make a play.
“It’s been very positive with the attitude and work ethic with our team.”
The changes paid off for the Pirates in their season opener April 7, as Park Center began the season with a 6-2 win over St. Louis Park.
The Pirates began the game strong as they worked three walks to load the bases for Tollefson, who drove in a run with an RBI groundout. After another walk to re-load the bases, Stachowski drove a two-run single to right field to give Park Center a 3-0 advantage after the first inning. Stachowski added another RBI single later in the game.
“I just wanted to get the team pumped up a bit,” Stachowski said. “I just wanted to change the momentum of the game, so I went up there with a swing-first approach, I guess.
“I just saw the pitch, it presented itself and it went.”
That was all Stein, the team’s Opening Day starter, needed, as he pitched five strong innings to earn the win for the Pirates.
“Tanner was consistent,” Johnson said. “He was hitting his spots and he was letting our defense make the plays, which is key.
“If your defense has to stand around, they tend to get lazy. He had a good pace to his game, he was spotting up and getting easy plays out there.”
Stein, who said he had issues with staying calm on the mound last season, stayed relaxed throughout the game and was proud of his effort.
“I’m feeling good about this, but I have to make sure that I’m keeping my head cool when I’m pitching,” Stein said. “When one pitch isn’t working I have to try the next one to do what I can to get outs.
“What I like to do is start out with a few pitches to begin the game, and as I’m going on I will bring out new pitches to get that working until I can find the zone with one that is not working.”
Johnson was proud of the way his team performed on offense and, while the Pirates were out-hit 10-5, he liked the way his players were aggressive toward the right pitches and worked walks, the Pirates walked eight times overall.
“The approach is that we want to be aggressive, but we want to be aggressive with the pitch that we’re looking for,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to go up there to see a ball and just hit it, we want to have a pitch location and a pitch selection and if it’s there, we want to be ready to go when we step in the box.”
After the first game of the season, Johnson said he was as happy as he believed he could be about the direction of the program.
“I feel really good, and it has to do with more than just baseball,” Johnson said. “We have an extremely supportive administration that helps us get the things we need to help us build our program.
“We have a tremendous coaching staff, catching coach, pitching coach, former Pirates that can help us show the way. It’s not just one person that is steering the ship.”
Park Center will play its next game of the season against Mounds View at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 15, at Mounds View High School.
Contact Chris Chesky at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @MNSunSports or @SunSportsChris.