By PATRICK SLACK
The extended cold, snowy winter forced the cancellation of the first month of the season, turning the Little Falls senior’s season into a frenetic four-week scramble.
However, Wenzel was just happy to be back practicing with his team, even if it was indoors.
And by the time the weather allowed actual game action to begin, the Flyers were especially happy to have him back.
Wenzel used his arm, glove and bat to lead Little Falls to a 17-5 record, with only top-ranked St. Cloud Cathedral able to prevent a trip to the state tournament.
Long road back
After missing part of the summer after his sophomore season and all of his junior year due to injury, Wenzel finally returned to health for the end of last year’s Victory League summer baseball season.
Then, another setback occurred this fall, causing him to miss the winter basketball season, until he was finally able to return and stay healthy this spring.
“It meant a lot to me personally, and also to our program, to see Josh back out on the field,” Little Falls head coach Chad Kaddatz said. “Everyone was quite aware of how hard it was for him to have to sit and watch last year, and then to go through the fall and winter where he re-injured his foot.
“He is such a tremendous athlete, but also a kid that really lives for baseball, so it was obvious how hard it was for him to watch his friends out playing the game he loves,” he said. “As a coach, you spend so much time with these young men, through the season and summer, that you start to view them at times like your own kids. You really empathize with them when things are not going well and almost feel a sense of pride when they are successful.”
“The only frustrating part in my high school career was physically not being able to play baseball my junior year,” Wenzel said. “This spring with the weather was obviously a tough time for all sports, but I could walk, I could practice and I could just be involved and not be on the sidelines which was enough for me. I knew eventually the games would be played and my healing process with the foot taught me patience.”
“It didn’t take me long at all actually (to get back in the swing of things), and that’s not because of the practicing, but it was because of my teammates welcoming me back,” Wenzel said. “The chemistry we had this year I thought was incredible and I owe them a big thanks for helping me get through the past two years and picking me up where I left off because alone it would have taken me a long time.”
The Flyers were finally able to open their season at Becker, April 29, welcoming the Bulldogs to the Granite Ridge Conference with a 7-1, 5-0 sweep, with Wenzel collecting three hits and throwing a three-hit shutout.
“The first game of the season, I got a taste of what I missed all my junior year,” Wenzel said. “I got to play outfield, pitch and hit. The feeling I got of playing again is indescribable. I tried to be as poised as possible and soak it all in, but that was nearly impossible. I could feel the nerves kicking in, but I was back doing what I loved and tried my best to make it seem like any other game.”
Impact whenever ‘ball is in his hands’
Wenzel will continue his baseball career at Minnesota State University-Mankato next spring, likely as an outfielder.
But his value as a big-game pitcher led Kaddatz to believe his biggest impact came on the mound.
“That is a tough question to answer. Josh is such a dangerous hitter and he can put so much pressure on a defense in the way he runs the bases, but I might lean towards the impact he had on us this year as a pitcher,” Kaddatz said. “He was phenomenal in all parts of the game, but the biggest difference is that when he is on the mound, he has the ball in his hands on every single play.
“Josh is the type of ball player that is at his absolute best when his best is absolutely needed,” he said. “When the game is on the line, I have total confidence in a player like Josh, and when he is on the mound and controlling the game you can get pretty comfortable as a coach.”
One of his top performances came at the back-end of a doubleheader against St. Cloud Cathedral, May 7, tossing a complete game to lead the Flyers to a 3-1 win after dropping the opener 6-1, a key sequence in the season according to Wenzel.
“Two games that stuck out to me was our doubleheader against Cathedral at Little Falls,” Wenzel said. “Our first game we lost a tough one. After that game we could have just rolled over and went into the next game thinking ‘here we go again,’ but instead we got right back onto the field and came back with a 3-1 win. That right there showed how resilient we were as a team and how easily we could brush something off and not wear it on our shoulders. It was a big moment for the team.” Little Falls won eight of its remaining 10 regular season games, entering the Section 6AA playoffs as the fifth-ranked team in the state.
Once there, Wenzel fired a complete game to lead Little Falls past Milaca 3-1 in its playoff opener, which the Flyers followed with two more wins to set up a clash with top-ranked St. Cloud Cathedral in the section semifinals.
Wenzel held the Crusaders to one run over six innings, but junior Division I prospect Jeff Fasching made it stand up in a 1-0 decision, leading to Cathedral’s eventual section title.
“Overall, looking back some would say we had a very successful season,” Wenzel said. “For the most part we did, but I was always hungry for that state championship and that was my ultimate goal. Not reaching that goal in my high school career does sting a little.
“I think we played very well as a team and it’s baseball so we can’t win them all,” he said. “Fasching is a great ball player who plays for a great team. I tip my hat to him and Cathedral for the season they put up. We just couldn’t figure him out while on the mound and Cathedral took full advantage of that with pitching him three times against us. He has a bright future and hopefully we can be teammates in the near future at Mankato.”
A luxury at leadoff and center
Most high school standouts, when not pitching, set up shop in the infield as well as the middle of the batting order.
Given his unique talents, and the depth of the Flyers, Wenzel batted leadoff and manned center field for the majority of his Little Falls career.
“Josh probably doesn’t get enough credit for his defense,” Kaddatz said. “He has great speed and a very strong arm, but what sets him apart from other players is his instincts. When you have a chance to watch him practice, you start to realize pretty quickly that he just flat out gets to every ball. A lot of that is due to the tremendous reads that he gets off the bat.
“He has great closing speed and a fantastic glove, but what people probably don’t notice is the jump he gets on the ball and the angles that he takes,” he said. “A lot of that comes from the way he practices and I hope that some of this rubbed off on our younger kids – there was never a time where he was just ‘shagging balls.’ He treated every ball in practice like it was a game and this work ethic is what honed his skills to what they are today.”
On top of that, Wenzel was the ultimate tone- and table-setter for the Flyers’ lineup, not only getting on base at a .437 clip with 13 stolen bases to score 22 runs, but also delivering seven of his 23 hits for extra bases to drive in 16 runs.
“It was a luxury to have Josh in that leadoff spot for most of the past four years,” Kaddatz said. “He has a great mix of speed and power, and batting in the leadoff position allowed him to come up 15 – 20 more times than he would hitting further down in the order. One of our major goals this year was to score first. It is such an advantage to have a player that can lead off a game with an extra-base hit and immediately be in scoring position, or because of his notoriety what would often happen is that people would pitch around him and he would be disciplined enough to take a walk and then use his speed to steal a base and set up the rest of our lineup.
“I think every program in the state would say that the best thing that could happen is to have your best players also be your hardest working players,” he said. “When that happens you will have success, and that is a big part of what we had this year in Little Falls. Our group of seniors were very talented, but also our hardest workers.”