Little Falls has had one of the top programs in the state the past three years, climbing into the top five of the rankings the previous two springs.
However, St. Cloud Cathedral has been standing in the way come section time, placing in the top three at state in each of those seasons.
Things won’t get any easier this spring, as section realignment has thrown last year’s Class A state runner-up Osakis, as well as Class AAA state runner-up Rocori into the mix in what was already a stacked Section 6AA.
“It definitely is not getting any easier,” Little Falls head coach Chad Kaddatz said. “I think it would be a safe statement to say that our section is the strongest in the state.”
First things first, Little Falls will have to find bodies to replace a star-studded senior class from a year ago that included co-ace pitchers Josh Wenzel and Gabe Ploof and multi-year starting infielders Collin Eckman, Matt Stumpf and Spencer Fenske.
“It was so much fun coaching a group like last year’s seniors, and watching them come together as the years went on,” Kaddatz said. “Now that they have graduated, you really see the void that they have left. We lost seven players who started in the section championship game last season, and not only were they good ballplayers, they were the heart and soul of our team.
“But, that is high school sports,” he said. “You always have turnover and always need new players to step up. It is just more noticeable when such a large group of kids graduates.”
The cupboard is far from bare as far as the pitching staff is concerned, though, as senior Kyle Boser will step into a leading role after excelling in limited action a year ago.
“I have total faith in Kyle stepping up and taking the role as ace of our staff this season,” Kaddatz said. “If we did not have such a large and talented staff last year with Wenzel, Ploof and Fenske, people would be talking about Kyle as one of the top returning pitchers in the area.
“He may be coming in a little under the radar this year, but definitely not by anyone who faced him last season,” he said. “He pitched one of the best games we have seen in the playoffs last year against Minnewaska, but when the next two games were Gabe Ploof throwing a one-hitter against Pierz and Josh Wenzel losing a 1-0 game against No. 1 ranked St. Cloud Cathedral, it was easy for some to lose sight of how good he is.”
Even without extensive time on the mound last spring, Boser received a scholarship to St. Cloud State University.
“You can really see how that has given him confidence and motivation to push himself this offseason,” Kaddatz said.
Little Falls also brings back its starting catcher in senior Alec Zack and first baseman in junior Bryce Zawatzke.
Among the other players battling for spots will be seniors Michael Fregin, Nick Anderson, Brett Strack and Dane Peterson, as well as a handful of juniors and sophomores.
“There will definitely be more competition for spots this year, and it will be fun to watch how things fall into place,” Kaddatz said.
The Flyers also possess several candidates to fill in behind Boser on the pitching staff.
“Michael Fregin, Nick Anderson and Brett Strack should add some senior stability to the staff, and there are some strong arms in the junior class, led by Adam Hallberg, Jeremy Klein, Evan Athman and Ben Witt, as well as sophomore Thomas Miller,” Kaddatz said.
Having that many options is a necessity come playoff time, as well as for a weather-shortened regular season.
“Once you get to the playoffs, you really are looking to have four solid arms you can depend on,” he said. “Our pitching depth will be important during the regular season, especially if we run into weather-related issues like we had last year.
“At the start of our season our strength will probably be our pitching staff, as we have a lot of new bats that will need to get accustomed to hitting varsity pitching,” Kaddatz said. “We have a lot of talent in our junior class, and it will be exciting to see how some of them progress throughout the year.”
In addition to St. Cloud Cathedral, Osakis and Rocori, it doesn’t appear as if there will be any weak links come section time, with traditional powers Albany and Paynesville also in the mix, as well as Foley, which Kaddatz said could be one of the top teams in the state.
“Whoever makes it out of Section 6AA knows that they should be in the running for a state title after making it through this section,” he said. “It would not surprise me to see five section teams rated in the top 10 this year.
“We would like to think that we can hold up our end of the bargain too,” he said. “We have finished the past three seasons rated at the top of the state polls, so hopefully there will be some carryover to some of our younger players with what is expected of them.”
Before section play comes around, Little Falls will also match up against a formidable slate of conference foes.
“I think the casual fan will be a little surprised with the depth of the Granite Ridge Conference this season,” Kaddatz said. “In the 17-team VFW league we are in during the summer, GRC teams finished in the second, third, fourth and fifth positions (Cathedral, Little Falls, Becker and Foley), ahead of the larger Central Lakes Conference and Mississippi 8 schools. It will be very important to be at our best for each and every game this year, and we all know that starts with the guy on the mound.
“One thing that really stands out so far is the ‘coachability’ of the team we have,” he said. “We have kids that absolutely love baseball, and are willing to work and make changes to keep improving. We have players who have spent a lot of time getting bigger, stronger and faster in the weight room this year, and they show up each day with such strong energy and drive to get better. It will be fun to watch how we progress as the year unfolds.”