By PATRICK SLACK
But a preseason injury to Josh Wenzel, the team’s standout starting center fielder and leadoff hitter left the Flyers without one of their most productive players from a year ago.
Filling his shoes figured to be too big of a task for any one player.
That turned out to be all right, as the Flyers overwhelmed opponents with their depth, from a dominant pitching staff to one of the deepest lineups in the state.
By the end of the season, Little Falls had spent most of the year as the No. 1 ranked team in the state, finishing with a 20-2 record and the first ever Granite Ridge Conference (GRC) title.
A handful of players took turns being the star, with five players earning all-area honors.
Leading the pack was senior catcher Joey Hanowski, who followed up a solid first half of the season with an even better performance down the stretch.
Hanowski picked up at the start of the season where he left off a year ago, going 9-for-14 with six doubles, eight RBIs and seven runs in the Flyers’ first four games.
A brief rough patch followed, as he was held to one hit in eight at-bats in the next two games.
That led into the game circled on everyone’s calendars at the start of the year, a home rematch pitting the third-ranked Flyers against top-ranked St. Cloud Cathedral, April 19.
The two teams traded a pair of early runs, with the score remaining tied at 2-2 heading into the fifth.
Junior shortstop Collin Eckman led off with a double and Hanowski followed with a base hit before both came around to score to give Little Falls a 4-2 advantage before it tacked on another run in the sixth.
The Crusaders rallied to close the gap to 5-4, but after erasing an 8-2 deficit in last year’s playoffs, could not come up with the one final hit they needed to pull off the comeback as Little Falls seized the top spot in the state rankings.
“We knew we could beat them and had the attitude going in that we could,” Joey said. “Once you beat a team that’s had your number for a while it’s very rewarding. We kind of got back at them for last year.”
The Flyers rattled off four more wins in a row against GRC foes to improve to 11-0 following a walk-off win over Foley, May 2.
For his part, Hanowski was batting .457 in the third spot in the lineup and the team was sailing along.
A lineup change certainly wasn’t necessary, but the red-hot Eckman caused head coach John Hanowski to flip him and Joey in the order, moving Joey up to second.
Batting in between senior leadoff hitter and all-area left fielder Mitch Gregory and Eckman, Hanowski took off, stringing together six consecutive multi-hit games, going 14-for-21 with all four of his home runs, 14 RBIs, 11 runs, two doubles and a triple.
“It was huge,” Joey said. “It was nice to go up and they’re not going to pitch around you because they don’t want to face the next guy and then Mitch Gregory was one of the best hitters in the conference. It was pretty easy to get good pitches to hit.”
“He quit pulling the ball and stayed inside it and hit the ball the other way,” John said. “Later on he started hitting gap to gap and that started working for him.”
“As a lefty facing a lot of right handed pitchers, the ball tails away, so if you’re going to try to pull it you’re going to hit a lot of ground balls to first and second base,” he said.
His tear continued as he reached base three times and drove in two runs in the first of two games played at Freeport, but Little Falls suffered its first loss in 12 innings against ranked Class AAA foe Rocori, May 19.
The Flyers didn’t have much time to regroup, with its second GRC game of the season against Cathedral following immediately after.
Little Falls had to hold off the Crusaders throughout the game, as Cathedral advanced at least one batter into scoring position in six of the seven innings.
But all-area senior starting pitcher Luke Thoma kept turning the Crusaders away, as Little Falls broke open a tight 1-0 game with three runs in the sixth and two more in the seventh for a 6-0 triumph and a season sweep.
“We came out a little flat in the first inning and thought ‘we better figure this out quick,’” Joey said. “Luke Thoma didn’t have his best stuff and still went out and shut them out. If you shut out Cathedral, you’re doing something right. It was good to bounce back and win after we had our first loss.”
Along with catching the shutout, Joey drilled three base hits, scored twice and scored a run in the Flyers’ next-to-last GRC obstacle.
In the team’s final regular season game, Hanowski collected the final three of his team-high 35 RBIs as Little Falls routed Foley 16-3, May 22, clinching a perfect conference season and the first ever GRC title for the Flyers.
“It was huge,” Joey said. “No one can ever take that away from us. Everyone’s going to know who won the first conference title, and to do it with an undefeated record was pretty tough to do against some tough competition. It was a big highlight of the season for sure.” Little Falls shut out Milaca 7-0 in the Sub-Section 6AA East quarterfinals on a no-hitter by junior Gabe Ploof, May 25, setting up a semifinal clash against Albany, May 29.
The Flyers had handled the Huskies 16-3 earlier in the year, but Albany entered with a healthy lineup and having won seven of nine before the game.
Hanowski went 2-for-3 with a triple and an intentional walk, but Albany rallied after being down to its final strike to force extra innings and win 3-2 in eight to cut short the Flyers’ playoff aspirations.
Even so, Little Falls finished with a 20-2 record and one of the best seasons in school history.
“It was a great season,” Joey said. “You can’t complain when you’re on the top-ranked team for most of the season. It obviously didn’t go the way we wanted at the end, but that’s baseball. Not always the best team wins.”
“On one day, a team that plays a little better than the other can win,” he said. “Hats off to Albany, they made a good run. A 20-2 record, conference champs, ranked No. 1 for quite a while … you can’t ask for much better besides going to state,” Joey said.
“It’s disappointing when you lose in the playoffs, but if you would’ve told us that we would lose Josh Wenzel and still be 20-2, most people would’ve been pretty excited,” John said. “A lot of kids stepped up that we didn’t necessarily think would. It was a good season that way.”
Hanowski finished with a .514 average, .593 on-base percentage and .889 slugging percentage, as well as 35 RBIs, 28 runs, 11 doubles, two triples, four home runs and four stolen bases while striking out only once in 72 at-bats.
“He has some power for a guy who is not real big,” John said. “He’s deceptively quick. He worked on trimming down and he runs well. He’s a pretty well-rounded player.”
“Usually you only play one level for two years, so this being my third year (playing varsity) I was pretty comfortable,” Joey said. “I got to play in a fall baseball league in the cities and faced a lot of tough pitching. I came in and in the new conference after seeing guys a few times through you feel pretty confident after awhile. The comfort level was very high this year.”
In addition to his daunting offensive numbers, Hanowski also helped work in tandem with a pitching staff that finished with a 2.42 earned-run average.
“I credit a lot of my catching to my dad,” Joey said. “My sophomore year I was always looking into the dugout for signs. My junior year he let me call more on my own. This year he gave me full reign. He’s always talking and helping.”
“They trusted me,” he said. “We didn’t shake off a lot so they would just say ‘if they hit it it’s your fault.’”
“Once you get in that catcher’s mentality it’s easier to call pitches,” Joey said. “‘What does this hitter like to do? Does he pull the ball? Should we go away from him?’ I credit a lot of that to my dad.”
“He’s very intelligent reading hitters and calling games,” John said.
At the end of the year, Hanowski was selected to the 25-player Class AA Minnesota Coaches Association all-state team, joining older brothers Beau and Ben in accomplishing the feat, as well as the Lions All-Star team.
With John also retiring as head coach at the end of the year, it marked a fitting way to end a dominant chapter in Little Falls baseball history.
“He had a great high school coaching career,” Joey said. “Our main goal was to make it to state not just for us but for him. I’m glad he stuck it out. My brothers would probably say the same thing: you couldn’t ask for a better coach.”
“It’s always been a joy,” Joey said. “Being the coach’s kid he came down on me a little harder but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was really fun.”
“It was nice,” John said. “I’m glad I did it. You go to the games anyway, so this way you have a front row seat. I was fortunate in the sense they were good players that belonged in the lineup.” “It’s not easy when you have to correct them, but they made it easy,” he said. “You get on them, praise them like anyone else and then try to leave it at the ballpark,” he said.
And now, with a formidable corps returning, it’s time for a new cast to continue the success.
“It should be a good team coming back,” John said. “Cathedral is always going to be the pillar in the way, but top to bottom, the program is in pretty good shape.”
MC Record’s Player of the Year, game-by-game
AprilPierz: 1-1, 2-RBI, 2-SAC, BBAlbany: 3-4, 2-2B, 3-RBI, 2-R, BB
Sauk Rapids-Rice: 2-5, 2-2B, 3-R
Perham: 3-4, 2-2B, 4-RBI, 2-R
Perham: 1-4, RBI, R, BB, SB
St. Cloud Cathedral: 1-3, R, SAC, SB
Zimmerman: 2-4, 2-RBI, R, BB
Milaca: 1-2, RBI, 2-R, 2-BB, SAC
Mora: 2-2, 2B, RBI, R, HBP
Foley: 0-2, RBI, SAC
Princeton: 2-3, HR, 3-RBI, 2-R, BB
Melrose Area: 2-3, HR, 4-RBI, 2-R, 2-BB
Becker: 3-4, 2B, RBI, R
Zimmerman: 3-4, 2-HR, 4-RBI, 2-R
Mora: 2-4, 2B, 2-RBI, 2-R, SAC
Milaca: 2-3, 3B, 2-R, 2-SB
Rocori: 1-3, 2-RBI, BB, HBP, SAC
St. Cloud Cathedral: 3-4, 2B, RBI, 2-R
Foley: 0-3, 3-RBI, R, 2-BB, SAC
Sub-Section 6AA East playoffs
Milaca: 1-3, 2B, R, BB
Albany: 2-3, 3B, BB
At bats: 72
Home runs: 4
Total Bases: 64
Bases on balls: 15
Sacrifice flies: 2
Sacrifice bunts: 6
Batting average: .514
On-base percentage: .593
Slugging percentage: .889
On-base plus slugging (OPS): 1.482