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Packers contenders

West Fargo pitcher Zach Steckler fires one in during a game Thursday against Wahpeton. Dave Wallis / Forum Communications Co.1 / 2
Braden Schmid of West Fargo makes a throw to first base to pick off a Wahpeton runner during their game Thursday at Legion Field in West Fargo. Dave Wallis / Forum Communications Co.2 / 2

Offense, defense, pitching: name it and chances are good that the West Fargo baseball team has a good handle on it.

Last week offered plenty of opportunities for the Packers to strut their stuff as they battled through four days of doubleheaders. By the end of the eight-game stretch, they were pretty darn tired, West Fargo coach Brett Peterson said.

"It was a tough week. Eight games is a lot; it's not ideal," he said. "There wasn't as much of a spring in our step by Friday. It definitely caught up to us against Grand Forks."

The Packers exhausted all options as they attempted to keep up with No. 1 Fargo South in the Eastern Dakota Conference rankings. Seven of the eight games West Fargo played were conference matchups, making them important for the standings and postseason seeding. By week's end, the Packers found themselves still in second place with a 10-2 conference record and 12-2 overall.

"We felt pretty good about coming out of that 6-2," Peterson said. "It puts us a game behind South in the loss column."

The Bruins are having a banner season. At 21-2 overall, they have nearly double the games under their belts than any other EDC team. That experience, combined with their skill, makes them a worthy adversary.

"It's tough to see them losing a game anytime soon," Peterson said.

Still, if West Fargo can keep up its winning ways, it will be in good shape. The week began Monday with a 16-6, 21-1 sweep of Valley City. Then the Packers took on the Bruins for a clash of titans, with each coming out with a win: 3-1 West Fargo, and 10-0 Fargo South.

The Packers also split Friday in Grand Forks, taking a 2-1 victory to start the day, before falling 3-2 in the nightcap.

But arguably the most exciting meeting of the week came on a gorgeous spring Thursday when West Fargo hosted Wahpeton at Legion Field. A stiff, partially blocked wind out of the west gave some oomph to swatted balls, and made for tricky play in the outfield. A setting sun right into the faces of the defense also added difficulty.

West Fargo managed the sweep, however, but not before a whirlwind series.

In the opener, Andy Young put the Packers on the board with a ground-rule-double in the first inning that drove in a runner from second.

Tucker Bucholz hit a line-drive to shortstop Cole Gilles, who made the throw to first for the inning's second out.

Enter Zach Steckler. The West Fargo junior swung on Ryan Sheeley's first pitch and knocked it over the high, left-center wall for a two-run homer. It was only West Fargo's second home run of the year and Steckler's first. He finished the game 2-for-3 with 2 RBIs.

Steckler also flexed his muscle on the mound, keeping the Huskies scoreless through five innings.

"He's emerged as a Top-3 guy," Peterson said. "He's mixing his pitches in well, and when he throws strikes, he's tough."

In the bottom of the fourth inning, with a man on first and two outs, Austin Horsager stepped into the batter's box for the Packers. A wild pitch got past Wahpeton catcher Preston Kath, giving Jon Pistorius the chance to advance to second base. At 3-1 in the pitch count, Horsager connected with a hard-hit ball that sailed into an open section of right field to drive in Pistorius and put the Packers up 4-nil.

The Huskies were far from done, however, and struck back in the sixth.

After striking out the first batter of the inning, Steckler hit and walked the next two. A wild pitch then allowed both to advance a base. The table was set for Nick Holkup, who hit a line-drive to third base. Braden Schmid scooped up the ball, but hesitated on the throw, and when he decided, his throw was off and scooted past the first baseman. Two runs scored and Schmid received an error.

Steckler cleaned up the inning by turning a double-play on the next batter.

In the top of the seventh, Young replaced Steckler after he'd thrown nearly 100 pitches in the game, Peterson said.

Wahpeton also tied up the score in the seventh, and Young managed to clean up the inning without any further damage.

West Fargo's winning run came in the bottom of the inning. With one out and two runners on, Bucholz smoked the ball down the left-field line to send in Landon Uetz for the hard slide.

The next game was just as much of a nail-biter. The Packers found themselves down 7-6 heading into the seventh inning. They managed to tie it up in the inning, as well as get the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

Schmid led the charge, going 3-for-2 at the plate with 2 runs and an RBI. Bucholz was 2-for-5 with 2 RBIs, and Uetz was 2-for-4 with an RBI and 3 runs.

Horsager started on the mound for West Fargo and pitched the first five inning with 7 strikouts. He gave up 5 earned runs, however, and was replaced in the sixth by Zach Neer. He put on quite a show, Peterson said.

"Zach actually started for the first time against Valley City on Monday," he said. "He felt good, so we thought he could come back.

"He just did great. We needed that because we really had nowhere else to go."

Neer finished with 8 strikeouts, 2 earned runs and one hit.

It was a heck of a busy week, and Peterson said he's proud of how his players handled the pressure.

"We had to give guys a rest here or there, but whoever we plugged in did really well," he said.

West Fargo doesn't have much time to breathe easy as a seven-game stretch awaits them. It's a trait Peterson isn't all that familiar with. The West Fargo School District normally has a limit on how many games teams can play during a given week. Because of the poor spring conditions, however, it was forced to waive the rule.

"We've never gone through this before. You got more of a rotation before, but now we've gone 7-8 deep," Peterson said.

West Fargo was slated to head to Valley City on Tuesday to kick of the stretch, but results were not available by press time. Their other games are: 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday hosting Shanley (10-3 EDC, 10-6); 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday hosting Red River (7-7, 10-9); and noon Saturday at Moorhead.

And in just two weeks, the Packers will be ready for the next step: postseason tournaments.

"We still have 16 games on the schedule. We have to get and stay healthy; that's the key this week," Peterson said. "And if there's one thing that's a concern right now, is consistently throwing strikes. We had way too many walks and free bases."