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A whole different ballgame

Matt Strahm winds up into a pitch during a game earlier this season with Neosho County Community College in Kansas. Strahm, a former West Fargo baseball standout, is having a breakout season as a freshman with the Panthers. Ben Smith / Special to the West Fargo Pioneer

When Matt Strahm was a pitcher with the Packers, he was well-known for his mastery on the mound. Now, in his freshman year at Neosho County Community College, not much has changed.

But transitioning from North Dakota high school baseball to collegiate ball in Chanute, Kan., did not happen overnight. In fact, Strahm might go as far as to say it's an entirely new ballgame down there.

"It's a lot different than high school ball," Strahm said, during a recent interview with the Pioneer. "You have to really locate your pitches or you're going to get hurt."

Strahm joined the Panthers fresh out of some of his best efforts in prep and American Legion baseball. In his senior year at West Fargo, he produced a 6-2 record, while throwing a team-high 70 strikeouts and an earned run average of just 1.07. He earned All-Conference and All-State honors, and was named Senior Athlete of the Year after leading West Fargo to a 26-6 record and a fifth-place finish at the state tournament.

During Legion ball in the summer, Strahm continued his winning ways with a perfect 7-0 season. He led the Patriots to a 31-18 record and a division title after racking up 82 strikeouts and a 1.96 ERA.

But baseball in Kansas is serious business, and despite all of his accolades, Strahm came in with a distinct disadvantage to his southern counterparts: winter.

"My coach just sat me down and told me, 'You're years behind these kids,' " Strahm said.

Neosho County head coach Steve Murry wasn't trying to belittle Strahm; he was simply being honest. With an extra three months a year to play baseball, Strahm's teammates and opponents have had a greater opportunity to fine tune their talents, without the lengthy downtime northern players suffer during the winter doldrums.

"It's a lot of fun, but they definitely take the game seriously," Strahm said. "All of our players are looking to hit the big time."

But while he was thrust into playing higher-caliber baseball against players with much more experience, Strahm's potential has hardly been tapped.

Murry explained the paradigm.

"I think what it does is this: northern kids have the same abilities as these southern kids, but (southern players) max out their abilities a little earlier," he said. "So Matt's ceiling is still high because he's still learning. He still has a ways to go."

That's saying something, especially when Strahm's current statistics are taken into account.

While he may be a greenhorn at Neosho County Community College, he's also quickly becoming one of its go-to pitchers.

"My coach and I talked, and I feel like I have a lot more room to mature," Strahm said.

His maturation is coming at a blazing rate. In his first game Feb. 17 against Brown Mackie, Strahm pitched two innings and got the win after producing four strikeouts off the six batters he faced. It was a small start, but the snowball grew.

Seven wins later, Strahm is coming on strong. His most recent victory was Saturday against Highland, in which Strahm went the full six innings, striking out nine and allowing just one earned run in the Panthers eventual 11-1 win. At 8-2, Strahm is one of his team's top pitchers; his 2.88 ERA is second overall, and his 69 strikeouts is a team high.

"He's responded really well, and our team is doing really well," Murry said.

Strahm is one of three freshmen in the Panthers rotation. It's a unique situation, Murry said, but he's not about to change anything given the results. Neosho County is on a 19-game winning streak, a school record, and at 27-5 currently sits one game behind first place in the NJCAA Division I Jayhawks East standings.

Being thrust into a game he thought he knew well in West Fargo, Strahm has come a long way in a short period of time.

"It's going pretty good now," Strahm said. "I came out of high school probably throwing 79-81 miles per hour. Now I'm in the 85-84 mile-per-hour range."

While Strahm admits he still has a ways to go, there's a lot to look forward to in the years to come - even if he does stand out a bit.

"You know, you North Dakota boys talk a bit different than us down here, and I think he's been made fun of a little bit," Murry said, laughing. "But he's a great kid and we're excited to see what he can do."