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New look Patriots winning big already

The Patriots' Kolby Schmidt prepares to steal second base against Vancouver in Omaha last weekend. Kevin Schmidt

If a minor league coach is leading a team to one winning season after another, why not make him the major league coach?

That's the direction West Fargo baseball went when Shannon Miller, coach of the successful West Fargo Aces the last three seasons, was recently named head coach of the West Fargo Patriots.

The Patriots are comprised of the same players that have won the last two section titles for the Aces. Many were part of last season's state tourney team that went 41-11 on the year. It's been an easy adjustment for Miller and his players, all of whom know each other well. The Patriots were off to a hot 14-6 start to the season at press time.

"I've coached every single one of these guys at one time or another. We've known each other, played together and have seen everything we've needed to see," said Miller. "We've played at higher levels, so this is an easy adjustment for me and for them."

The days of the West Fargo Patriots going 14-26, as they did last year, may be over. With nearly unmatched team speed, balanced hitting and consistent pitching, there's no reason the Patriots can't match or even surpass the same kind of success they saw while Aces, said Miller. The season isn't even half over, and the Patriots have already matched last season's win total.

"They've won with me before. We've won together. It's not me, it's not that," said the coach. "It's the fact that these guys know how to play, and they know how to win. There was a lot of talk that we need to change the culture of the West Fargo Patriots program, but it's not 40 years of West Fargo Patriots playing here. It's these guys, and they've done it, they can win."

Everyone asked points to team speed as the Patriots' offensive and defensive weapon. It's also something that sets this team apart from last year's.

"It's a huge thing," said Miller. "We are constantly putting pressure on defenses. They have to cover the bag, or we're going to take a base. It's kind of pick your poison. You can shut down our run game, and that's fine, but we're going to open up gaps for our hitters. And once we get five or six runs on the board, with our pitching and our defense, we wish you the best of luck with catching us."

Hearing the West Fargo coach talk like that may be refreshing for Patriots fans who haven't seen their team be a bastion of success in a very long time. It's not just team speed and improved hitting and pitching that have the Patriots themselves optimistic. Some players have discussed how they feel this West Fargo team is more of a team than last season's.

"I guess some of the guys who played for the Patriots last year said we actually care, that when we lose we dwell on it, and we don't blow it off right away. We care more I guess," said Flaten.

Pribula played for the Patriots last season and sees the difference.

"This year it seems if someone makes a mistake that people are there to help bring him back up. Last year it seemed people would get down on teammates," he said. "This year we play more as a team and pick each other up."

West Fargo has 15 players on its roster this year, and many of them platoon with others at certain positions, including at catcher where David Johnson and Johnny Schroeder split time.

Trevor Plehall and Bryant Sanderson rotate between first base and designated hitter. Flaten and Cole Mapes hold second base and shortstop, respectively, forming what Miller said is the best middle infield in the state.

Jared Reber, Luke Steckler and Phil Jahnke see time at third base, while Eric Benson starts in centerfield. Leftfield is held down by Tyler Gronbeck and Kolby Schmidt, while Matt Strahm and Aaron Sanderson split time in right field.

Strahm, who pitched a no-hitter for the high school team during the spring, is the team's ace, followed by Steckler, Gronbeck, Schmidt and Pribula. Schroeder and Mapes, as well as the starters, serve as the team's top relievers.

The Patriots, two games from first in the state standings, went 2-1 at last weekend's Battle of Omaha Tournament with wins over Omaha South and South Colorado. West Fargo is already the proud owner of a very rare win over Fargo Post 2 earlier this month.