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West Fargo's Matt Strahm delivers a pitch against Grand Forks Central during a game last season. David Samson/The Pioneer

Season preview: Pitching corp to carry West Fargo baseball

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For the West Fargo baseball team, last season was one of highs and lows. It missed a state tournament berth for the second straight year, but finished second during the regular season in conference play.

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In his sixth-year with the Packers, head coach Brett Peterson isn't looking back, however - he's looking ahead.

"It's always good to start fresh - with a clean slate," he said. "Returning players are going to remember coming up a run short from the state tournament, so hopefully they can build on that."

West Fargo returns to the field after going 10-6 in the Eastern Dakota Conference and 19-9 overall, including postseason play. As always, the Packers have one goal in mind: "Getting to the state tournament," Peterson said. "That's in the back of their heads a little bit."

As it happens to every sports team on occasion, the Packers will have to manage minus a chunk of players from last season - seven to be exact.

Peterson isn't overly worried about the mass exodus, which includes Ryne Shaeffer who decided to participate in track and field in lieu of baseball for his senior year. In fact, Peterson thinks this season will be even better than the last.

"We always lose seniors and you can look at the stats: we definitely have some shoes to fill," he said. "The positive thing about this team is ... we do probably return more varsity experience than we ever have.

"Top to bottom, we have a lot of talent and we will be able to fill those shoes."

Those shoes belong to six graduated seniors, including All-EDC team members Eric Benson and Cole Mapes. Benson was leadoff hitter for the Packers, and led the team in batting with a .414 average on 29 runs, 7 doubles, 2 triples and 14 runs batted in. Mapes also was a solid hitter with a .377 average on 16 runs and 14 RBIs.

Other sluggers who will be missed are seniors Trevor Plehal and Jared Reber, who combined for 18 runs and averaged .362 and .318, respectively.

But as Peterson said, there are players in the wings ready to pick up the bat, and specifically eight seniors. These include Spencer Flaten and All-EDC honoree Jacob Kiefer.

"Flaten had a great Llegion summer last year, so he'll step into that leadoff spot," Peterson said. "Benson has big shoes to fill, but I think Flaten can do it."

During the offseason, Flaten signed with Jamestown College. He hit a .362 average and was second behind Benson in runs with 26. Flaten also was tied with Kiefer for a team-high 18 RBIs. But Flaten really shined with his American Legion team, where he led in 12 categories, including batting average (.389), on-base percentage (.460), singles (50), triples (3) and stolen bases (18). He also was a member of the 2008 North Dakota Class B All-Star team and 2009 Class A All-Star team.

Kiefer was second only behind Benson in batting average with .385, while connecting on 25 hits, 11 runs and a team-high 9 doubles.

"Kiefer had a great year and he's looking good," Peterson said.

Look to Bryce Jorgenson, Matt Strahm and Kolby Schmidt to round out some of the top senior hitters. It will be up to some newcomers to hit the ground running, and pick up key knowledge from the wealth of Packers with experience.

"Some of these guys, it's going to take them a while to get adjusted, but we like what we see so far in preseason practices," Peterson said. "I think, in time, we are going to be a good offensive team."

Packers' pitching strong

As for pitching, that's where West Fargo will shine, Peterson said.

"It's going to be our strength," he said. "Matt Strahm is coming back and is an ace in every sense of the word. He was really tough on opposing team hitters, and he's added velocity to his fast ball since last season."

Like Flaten, Strahm also made a college commitment - Neosho County Community College in Chanute. Kan. - during the offseason. Last season, he posted a 6-3 record pitching for the Packers and had a 2.68 ERA in 60 2/3 innings. Strahm's season highlight, however, came shortly before the East Region tournament. He successfully pitched West Fargo's first no-hitter in three years, leading the Packers to a 9-0 trouncing over Grand Forks Central.

Other top pitchers will be Jorgenson, Kolby Schmidt and Tanner Dahl. Jorgenson was third in pitching after acquiring a 3-1 record, and both he and Dahl finished with a 3.273 ERA. Meanwhile, Schmidt went 4-0 and led West Fargo with a 1.385 ERA.

"They're going to throw strikes and give us a chance," Peterson said.

In all, the Packers have the offensive and defensive weaponry needed to be a force in the state this year.

"I think as we get going, we're going to be OK," Peterson said.

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