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RedHawks continue winning ways

After winning 70 games and a Northern League Championship in 1998, the question was legitimate. What do you do for an encore?

All the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks have done since then is put together another championship season in 2003, the best regular season in league history last year, and earned the title as Independent Baseball's Most Outstanding Franchise.

Sure, they were a game short of a Northern League title last year, which would have completed the most dominant season Independent Baseball has ever seen, but the Hawks are back this year to prove its loss was just a small obstacle in this summertime dynasty.

Once again, Fargo-Moorhead is atop the Northern League standings, thanks to returning its entire outfield, the winningest manager in League history, and a general manager who has literally grown up with the team.

Leading the way on the field is the trio of Brent Krause, Richard Austin and Joe Mathis, the "angels" in the outfield. The three each have an average over .300, can hit for power, have unbelievable speed and are strong defensively.

"We're comfortable with each other," Austin said of the group. "Any given time, we know what the other guy is thinking. It makes it great to play here."

The infield has seen some retooling. Eric Kofler has been in and out of the designated hitter role. The pitching has been up and down. But knowing there are those three veterans out in the grass makes Doug Simunic, the league's premiere manager, feel a bit better.

"You can't help but have a lot of confidence in those guys," he said before the season.

The squad still has a prominent local tie. Catcher Robbie Lopez, who joined the squad as a bit player and bullpen catcher, is currently the team's bullpen coach. The experienced player had a solid career with both the West Fargo Packers and Patriots summer baseball programs, and his family still resides in West Fargo.

Also, the West Fargo Baseball Association has consistently worked with the Hawks to provide "clean-up crews" for after the games, so you'll often see West Fargo players, donning their jerseys, cleaning up the stands after catching the game.

The 2006 Hawks have started well, taking 15 out of their first 20. The annual goal of winning that first-half title and securing the postseason berth, something Simunic strives for, looks like it is in sight, especially after a couple of sets with rival Winnipeg, who is trying to chase down the Hawks in the West Division. The GoldEyes, who have played .500 ball throughout the course of the early season, could make up ground with some wins over the Hawks during the next two weeks as the two teams close in on the end of the first half of the season.

"You want to take that first half title and then you can relax a little bit heading into the second half of the season," Simunic said. "It's not that you let up. But you aren't pressing those final weeks the way you would if you were still trying to get in."

Without a doubt, the games are still the "main event" of the summer when it comes to Fargo-Moorhead sports. Despite having one of the smaller ballparks in the Northern League, the Hawks are always near the top of the attendance figures.

"Percentage-wise, we're way ahead of the curve," new General Manager Josh Buchholz, who has risen from clubhouse manager to GM over 10 seasons, said. "The fans are the key to all of our success, no doubt. We're happy to have that base of season-ticket holders and the people that come back year after year. But our job is to keep those people that come just three of four times a year coming. And you want them all to leave with a smile on their face."

The Hawks will look to use a six-game homestand, which starts Friday, to seal that first half title. The stretch starts with a three-game set with the GoldEyes, who come into the Nest for a three-game set. June closes out with a three-game series with Joliet, the first meeting between those two teams this season, and then a getaway day next Thursday, before the Hawks have a six-game road trip to start the month of July.

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