By PATRICK SLACK
And more pitching.
Sure, the Victory League (VL) has its share of burly sluggers who can thump the ball out of the park.
But where the VL has separated itself as one of the state’s premier leagues has been on the mound.
The state tournament field expanded from 32 to 48 teams last year, providing select regions the ability to send two more teams to state.
No league benefitted more than the VL, which comprises all of Region 8C.
With its plethora of aces, all four state qualifiers moved past the first round, with the trio of Sobieski, Lastrup and Avon advancing all the way to the quarterfinals.
After winning back-to-back region champ-ionships, Sobieski got even better with the acquisitions of brothers Tyler and Cole Jendro.
The pair posted a combined record of 19-2 on the year, leading the Skis to their third consecutive region title before falling 3-1 at the hands of eventual state champion Maple Lake.
Lastrup’s 2012 campaign was arguably as impressive, if not more so, with the right-left combination of Chad Weiss and Scott Janson flummoxing opponents, as the Lakers put together a perfect regular season.
Then there was Avon, who rode Kyle Collins deep into the playoffs, with the former minor leaguer tossing a spectacular no-hitter in a 1-0 third-round victory.
Nisswa rounded out the state qualifiers, helped along by Fort Ripley draftee Logan Kalis and a thunderous middle of the lineup.
Who will make it out of the VL and onto state this summer?
If last season was any indicator, it will be the teams with the strongest arms. And they will have a chance to make some noise once they get there.
East Division breakdown
Last year’s standings: 1. Lastrup (13-0); 2. Pierz Brewers (6-7); 3. Harding (4-9); 4. Buckman (4-9); 5. Pierz Bulldogs (2-11).
Region qualifiers: Lastrup and Buckman.
Burning question: Can Lastrup make another unbeaten run through regular season play?
Lastrup’s one-two punch of Chad Weiss (2012: 12-0, 1.75 ERA) and Scott Janson (9-2, 2.10) overwhelmed opposing hitters throughout much of last year, leading the Lakers to a perfect VL record entering the region tournament.
Lastrup maneuvered its way to a fourth-place region finish, then Weiss lifted the Lakers through the opening three rounds with a trio of dominating pitching performances.
On top of that, the Lakers packed a wallop with some thumpers in the middle of the lineup, led by Rick Schlieman (.419, 7 HR, 34 RBI) and Jason Sadlovsky (.319, 3 HR, 22 RBI).
Another perfect run will be difficult to duplicate, but the Lakers’ depth should make them a frontrunner once again.
Following a 4-9 regular season, Buckman overcame a fourth seed in the division playoffs to reach the region tournament, where the Billygoats came within a game of a stunning trip to state after an opening-round win over St. Mathias.
Lastrup: Schlieman, Sadlovsky, Janson, Weiss and Reggie Litke.
Pierz Brewers: Mike Poser, Dylan Kummet, Eric Boser, Chuck Boser and Greg Pohlkamp.
Harding: Mitch Dorn, Curt Caughey and Joel Hendrickson.
Buckman: Jeremy Monson, Mark Kahl, Corey Egan, Travis Kahl, Pete Suska, Pete Oldakowski and Ben Boser.
Pierz Bulldogs: Pete Herman, Paul Herman, John Pohlkamp and Andy Leidenfrost.
West Division breakdown
Last year’s standings: 1. Sobieski (12-2); 2. Freeport (11-3); 3. Upsala (7-7); 4. Randall (6-8); 5. Royalton (4-10); 6. Flensburg (0-14).
Region qualifiers: Sobieski and Freeport.
Burning question: Can anyone challenge Sobieski?
Freeport gave Sobieski a run for the top spot last year, placing one game behind the Skis.
But with the departure of the Black Sox to the North, the next top challenger figures to be Upsala.
The Blue Jays split a pair of regular season slugfests with Sobieski, and returns a deep pitching staff, headlined by John Fuchs (5-3, 3.36) and Matt Swanson (3-3, 6.56).
Even if Sobieski cannot be dethroned from its perch atop the West, a region tournament berth will be up for grabs with Freeport no longer in the mix.
Randall, led by dual-threat Dusty Parker, and Royalton figure to challenge Sobieski and Upsala for a spot, with Flensburg looking to build off its surprising playoff run of a year ago, bolstered by the addition of Paul Krebs.
Sobieski: Tyler Jendro, Cole Jendro, Jon Czech, Isaac Smieja, Andrew Gurbada and Nate Olson.
Upsala: Ben Burggraff, Swanson, Joe Bartkowicz, Dustin Biniek and Fuchs.
Randall: Parker, Nick Prozinski, Kyle Peterschick and Ricky Drew.
Royalton: Matt Gottwalt, Adam Snyder and Hunter Young.
Flensburg: Mitch Gregory, Luke Thoma, Eddie Wenzel, Bryan Majerus, Tony Arnold and Cody Waldvogel.
North Division breakdown
Last year’s standings: 1. Nisswa (8-4); 2. Fort Ripley (7-5), 3. St. Mathias (6-6); 4. Cuyuna Range (5-7).
Region qualifiers: Nisswa and St. Mathias.
Burning question: What impact will the addition of Freeport have?
Nisswa joined the Victory League two years ago and made an immediate impact, qualifying for the state tournament in its first two seasons out of the North.
Will Freeport have a similar impact?
In a move based much less on geography and more on creating four equal five-team divisions without wholesale realignment, Freeport will move into the North this year after spending its inaugural VL year in the West, where it nearly topped region champion Sobieski.
Freeport will have to replace No. 1 pitcher Mike Frericks, who is participating in a college wood-bat league with Wayne State in British Columbia.
Expected to step to the front of the rotation will be lefthanders Peter Burg and Nate Winter, along with Craig Meyer, with Josh Vorpahl serving as the top man in relief.
Fort Ripley will vie to return to the region tournament with the imposing pitching trio of Brett Kramer (5-1, 2.25), Ethan Branum (4-3, 2.61) and Logan Kalis (3-4, 1.77), as will defending division playoff champion St. Mathias.
Nisswa: Aaron Jenkins, Jason Roepke, Jeremiah Piepkorn and Luke Schumer.
Fort Ripley: Kramer, Kalis, Branum, Ray Austin, Rob Veith and Jason Sather.
St. Mathias: Josh Haberman, Jake Francis, Blake Thiesse and Ryan Thiesse.
Cuyuna Range: Mac Jones, Reed Olander, Lance Herbst and Andrew Hartshorn.
Freeport: Eric Eveslage, Jason Tschida, Chad Hess, Ryan Tschida, Lincoln Haugen and Grant Hess.
South Division breakdown
Last year’s standings: 1. Avon (10-3); 2. St. Stephen (9-4); 3. Opole (8-5); 4. St. Wendel (7-6); 5. Holdingford (2-11).
Region qualifiers: Avon and St. Stephen.
Burning question: Will Avon arms be enough to tip the scales again in balanced South?
The top four teams in the South finished clustered within three games of each other in a competitive race last year.
Perhaps the biggest separating factor was Collins, who posted an 8-3 record with a sparkling 1.19 ERA for Avon.
Troy Wunderlich (2.13) and Adam Harlander (2.98) also provided extensive quality innings for the Lakers on their way to a runner-up finish in the region, with the offense anchored by Jeff Swenson (.378) and Reed Voit (5 HR).
St. Stephen, winner of last year’s division playoffs, remains a top challenger with a powerful lineup intact, finishing a game away from state last season.
Opole and St. Wendel also should be in the mix in the South race, with Opole led by ace Jake Eichten, who picked up two wins in the region tournament as a draftee for Avon, with St. Wendel also expected to be in the mix.
Avon: Collins, Wunderlich, Harlander, Swenson, Voit and Rick Hendrickson.
St. Stephen: Travis Phelps, Ben Omann and Trent Phelps.
Opole: Jake Eichten and John Pilarski.
St. Wendel: John Pogatchnik and Damien Dumonceaux.
Holdingford: Derek Thielen and Jeremy Klein.
The regular season is scheduled to kick off Sunday, April 28, with Flensburg at Lastrup, St. Wendel at Holdingford, Royalton at Randall, Upsala at Sobieski and the Pierz Brewers at the Pierz Bulldogs.
Ten games to watch
Upsala at Sobieski, April 28
The season starts with a bang, as intense West Division rivals Upsala and Sobieski are set to clash on the opening weekend.
The two squads split a pair of regular-season meetings last year, with Upsala winning the first tilt 9-6 in 12 innings, only
for the Skis to return the favor the next weekend with a 13-5
win in a season that saw Sobieski reach the state quarterfinals.
St. Stephen at Avon, May 5
Avon got the first and last laugh over St. Stephen last summer,
winning the South Division’s regular season title, then fought back after losing to the Steves in the division playoffs to reach
the state tournament.
Lastrup at Sobieski, May 12
Two of last year’s final eight teams in the state square off, with a potential clash of aces between Lastrup’s Chad Weiss and Sobieski’s Tyler Jendro.
Harding at Lastrup, May 19
The quest for Northeast Morrison County supremacy resumes,
as Harding tries to close the gap after Lastrup swept through
the regular season unbeaten a year ago.
Upsala at Buckman, May 27
It’s impossible to go wrong with any game on Memorial Day, as
Upsala makes the cross-county trek to Buckman.
Freeport at Fort Ripley, June 9
New North Division member Freeport will look to avenge a
15-9 slugfest loss to Fort Ripley from a year ago. The Rebels
close the evening by hosting St. Mathias in a rematch of last
year’s division playoff finals, which the Devils took 10-5.
Freeport at Nisswa, June 14
Freeport kicks off a second-consecutive weekend in the
Brainerd Lakes area with a late-season showdown with repeat
state entrant Nisswa in a contest likely to have playoff
Pierz Bulldogs at Pierz Brewers, June 15
The in-town rivals meet up for the second time as the season
winds down, perhaps jockeying for seeding position in the East.
Royalton at Buckman, June 22
The Southern Soo Line (and unorthodox mascot) battle picks up again, as the Buckman Billygoats welcome in the Royalton
Riverdogs for a late-season clash.
Randall at Flensburg, June 30
Flensburg struggled mightily in the regular season a year ago,
but won its playoff opener before the Cubs held off the Falcons
in the second round.