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Pitching depth paves way for Packers

West Fargo's Devin Wagenman pitches against Fargo South last week at Bennett Field. Wagenman is one of seven starting pitchers the Packers have used this season. David Samson

By Daniel Determan

The Packer baseball team finished its regular season this weekend with a 21-6 record and third-place ranking in the Eastern Dakota Conference, and will now work to reach their third consecutive state championship game.

But something is different this time around.

Last year’s severely shortened season allowed the team to rely – almost entirely – on just two pitchers, but this year’s Packers have used 11 different pitchers at one point this season and, for the most part, have found success regardless of who is on the mound.

“This is as deep as we have gone in quite a few years,” head coach Brett Peterson said. “Everyone we have used out there has been throwing strikes. When you do that, you have a chance.”

While utilizing that many pitchers means the top starters do not get the preferred amount of experience – roughly seven starts in a season – the Packers enjoy the notion of having an opposing teams never see the same pitcher, as well as the ability to keep their shoulders healthy.

“When anyone comes in to pitch, their arms are fresh,” senior pitcher Devin Wagenman said. “No one is ever coming off two days of rest or anything like that, so we can stay in top shape.”

Only two pitchers – senior Noah Paper and junior Chase Gooding – entered the 2014 season with any varsity pitching experience, combining for roughly eight innings last year. However, with a condensed nine-game season last spring, the team was able to get away with using aces Camran Bonnema and Kory Wolden, who have since graduated, for the majority of the season.

While Peterson, in his 11th year as coach, never felt he was overusing his aces, he did regret not having adequate depth on the mound at tournament time.

The regular-length season this time required Peterson and the coaching staff to explore the lineup.

“This year’s schedule – as challenging as it has been – has allowed us to get a look at more guys and see what they have got,” Peterson said. “I think we have confidence in a lot of those guys. We are not going to go into the EDC tournament feeling like we can only throw three guys. We have a lot of guys with a lot more innings under their belt, and that is going to be beneficial.”

It has paid off, too, as those 11 pitchers have combined for a 3.01 ERA and 193 strikeouts.

One major key to the pitching success may be the offense supporting them. While their coach worried about where the runs would come from at the beginning of the season, the Pack has averaged roughly 7½ runs per game, but have hit only one home run all season.

“It’s not about the power with us,” Gooding said. “We don’t have power hitters, so we play the small game and we don’t leave many runners on. I think we are doing so well because we score early, and the pitchers can feel the weight off of their shoulders. They can give up a walk here or a run there and still feel relaxed.”

The baseball playoffs begin Thursday, with the Packers facing No. 6 Grand Forks Central at 6:30 p.m. at Kraft Field in Grand Forks. Peterson’s postseason advice to his pitchers has been simple: Keep doing what you have been doing.

“We want them to keep pounding the strike zone,” Peterson said. “We have really been able to throw any pitch for strikes, and they have done a good job of keep hitters off-balance. We expect them to continue on with that, and if they do, we should be successful.”