The makeup of the West Fargo varsity baseball team has changed substantially since last season - yet it is what hasn't changed that the Packers are relying on to bring them back to the state tournament.
West Fargo's experienced and talented pitching corps led by seniors Josh Ferguson (4-1, 1.54 ERA last season), Rudy Astran (1-1, 1.47 ERA) and Luke Steckler (0-4, 4.92) is expected to lead the team this season. All three return after several months of high school and legion baseball. Ferguson was clearly the staff ace last season during his rookie year that included a no-hitter.
Rookie junior Alex Pribula also showed he's ready for varsity action when he tossed a one-hit, 11-strikeout performance in the second game of a season-opening doubleheader at Thief River Falls on Monday night. The Packers (1-1 on the year) lost game one 8-5 due mainly to five errors, and won the second 5-0 behind Pribula's complete game shutout. Astran started game one.
"I'm pretty excited about having that much experience come back on the mound," said West Fargo coach Brett Peterson. "We're pretty comfortable going with five-to-six guys. We look for who are our top three by the end of the year, who is going to get our three EDC and our three state tournament starts."
Other pitchers will include junior Tyler Gronbeck and a host of sophomores who are expected to get some innings. Several players who competed for the West Fargo Aces baseball team that went 38-12 last season and made it to the Class B legion state tournament are hoping to make their mark on varsity this spring.
Pribula was 7-2 on the year for the Aces, while Gronbeck was 6-2 on the mound. Four players - all of which will see varsity action - hit over .400 last summer for the Aces.
"A lot of guys developed into better baseball players last summer, and it's really showing as the season begins," said Astran.
Only three regular varsity position players return from last season's team that went 14-20 on the season and squeezed into the state tournament by finishing fourth at EDC with a No. 7 seed. The Packers' surprising late season surge helped them take fifth at state.
Senior Aaron Sanderson (.280, 11 RBIs last season) will start at catcher for the Packers but will share time with senior Jonny Schroeder, who played mostly JV last season. Aaron hit .373 with 26 RBIs for the Aces, while Schroeder saw time as a pitcher for the Patriots and could also be used in a closer role for the Packers, Peterson said.
First base will be occupied by Aaron's twin brother senior Bryant Sanderson, who hit .226 with nine RBIs on varsity last year and .433 with a team-leading 43 RBIs for the Aces. Junior Trevor Plehal will also see action at first base.
Steckler, who hit .346 with 23 RBIs for the Aces last year, will be the regular second baseman when he's not pitching.
Junior Cole Mapes will play shortstop this year after hitting .412 with two home runs and 32 RBIs for the Aces.
"Our strengths this season will be pitching and defense," said Mapes. "We're a pretty deep hitting team as well. We're very solid at all our positions pretty much. Plus our seniors are good athletes, and they help us a lot and know what they're doing."
Senior Phil Jahnke, who hit .440 for the Aces, rounds out the infield at third along with junior Jared Reber.
Probable outfielders include a rotation of senior Anthony Charbonneau (.323, 8 RBIs varsity, .381 with 11 stolen bases for the Aces) and rookie seniors Peter Weber (a team-leading .493 for the Aces) and Jordan Johnson, along with Ferguson. Sophomore Jacob Kiefer, Gronbeck and Pribula will also see time in the outfield, according to Peterson.
"We'll be trying some guys out there and seeing where we're at," said Peterson. "Defensively we'll throw anyone out there, and they can do the job."
Numerous players will see varsity action, especially on the mound, in the early weeks of the season, thanks to a crowded schedule brought on by several weather-related makeup games. The Packers hope to open their conference schedule tomorrow at home against Devils Lake - likely with Ferguson in game one.
"I'd say pitching is our strength right now, especially with the cold weather," said Ferguson. "It's not easy to bat in the cold with the wooden bats, especially. It's different hitting against live pitching versus hitting in a cage. I think our pitching will be big right away."
West Fargo could be the conference's dark horse with their returning pitching and talent that came up from last season's JV and Aces teams. No local coaches picked the Packers as conference favorites.
"I think we'll get off to a faster start this year. We ended last season strong, and we can build off of that," said Peterson. "We have a lot of guys that had good JV seasons and good legion seasons. If we get a few of those guys to step up and hit the ball, then we'll be all right."