Spring sports can be a frustrating thing in Minnesota. Mother nature tends to throw her best curveball at this time of year, mixing in a warm day when it isn’t expected, before throwing one more snowstorm at the state right when everyone is ready to go outside.
Because of those weather concerns, spring sports never know exactly when they’ll be able to get outside to start their season. Knowing that, the Monticello baseball team decided to take matters into their own hands. They packed their bags and used their spring break last week to take a six-day excursion to Fort Pierce, Florida, granting them the opportunity to play baseball, the real kind, not the in-the-gym kind, and grow closer as a team.
“Saturday we woke up [after flying in Friday the 22nd], and it was 80 or 85 degrees,” said Coach Corey Stanger. “It was really nice. Better than this Minnesota weather.”
And Stanger made sure his kids got to take full advantage of that weather. Their five full days in Florida included eight scrimmages, a trip to the beach, and even a New York Mets spring training game.
“We were in Florida, so we had to make sure we kept the fun [aspect] of the trip,” said captain Hayden Laimer. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Well, that and getting a jump start on the competition this year. The Magic enter the year with high hopes, chasing a conference title that would be the first for any of the varsity players, and this trip offered them a week of work that they never would have gotten in Monticello.
The team’s eight scrimmages were each seven innings long, and the Magic were allowed to substitute freely during them, meaning everyone got a lot of playing time. Starters would play four innings, and subs would play three. Then the starters and subs would switch for the second game of the day.
Still, despite all the substituting, all of the kids got plenty of innings.
“It was busy,” said Stanger. “Everyone got a lot of live at bats.”
Along with at bats, everyone got chances to field real ground balls, taking real bounces rather than skipping off the gym floor in the exact same fashion, time after time.
“Being able to see live pitching, live groundballs, it’s so crucial to help with what we want to do this year,” said Laimer.
And the pitching staff got to face not just live hitters, but some high quality players.
The Magic squared off against teams largely from the northeast part of the country, and some of them boasted pretty impressive rosters.
“One team had three Division I players,” said captain Jakob Kounkel. “You’re not going to see that in the Mississippi 8.”
But, the Magic didn’t go all the way to Fort Pierce just to take their lumps and head back home. Instead they were quite happy with the way they competed for most of the trip.
“We saw some really good baseball,” said Stanger. “I thought our kids did a really nice job.”
Stanger pointed to a handful of seniors who really stepped up and looked ready to start the season.
“Mike Fisette came out and hit the ball really, really well,” said Stanger, of his centerfielder, who will be a three-year starter for the Magic.
“Mitch Barthel did a really nice job hitting the ball as well,” added Stanger.
On the mound, the Magic were led by Kounkel and Spencer Host, a duo that should be among the toughest in the Mississippi 8.
“Both those two guys looked really good,” said Stanger.
While Stanger was impressed with the way some of the seniors stepped up during their first week of live action, the seniors were in turn happy with what they saw from their younger teammates.
“I was actually really impressed by the juniors, hitting-wise,” said Kounkel.
“We had some games where it was just like everyone was hitting,” agreed Laimer. “Up and down the lineup.”
Overall, the Magic are an experienced team, bringing back a handful of last year’s starters. But with a few positions to fill, they will need a few juniors to step up throughout the year.
This trip provided not only the opportunity for them to step up to the seniors’ level on the field, but also the chance for them to grow together off the field, something both captains pointed to as an important part of the trip.
While Kounkel said the bonding was definitely the highlight of the week, Laimer expanded on those thoughts.
“A lot of us knew each other,” said Laimer. “But being with each other 24/7 was really nice. That Florida trip really built what we had into something special.”
Laimer refers to off-the-field chemistry. But soon, they’ll get a chance to go back outside, and face Minnesota competition, finding out if “special” might refer to other things, such as their potential this season.
The problem is, now that they’re back in Minnesota, no one really knows what soon means.
Snow is melting off the field, and Stanger hopes to possibly be doing some things outside by the end of this week. But with this flucuating weather, the Magic are left sitting, waiting and wishing.
“There is nothing like being on the field,” said Kounkel. “Being inside is just tough. And it’s even worse not knowing. But we live in Minnesota, land of unpredictable weather.”
Still, the frustration of being home might just make their last week that much more special.
“I know it stinks being back in the gym right now,” said Laimer. “But being able to have that under our belt already is really, really important for us.”
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]