The winter of 2010 turned out to be a long offseason for the Monticello Polecats, the local town baseball team.
The season ended in August of that summer, beginning an offseason that would drag on, and on, and on, until finally three and a half years had gone by.
Three years after the team had disbanded following that 2010 season due to financial reasons and a lack of local commitment, Clay Lanners and Joe Kounkel sat down for a little talk.
They decided they wanted to bring town team baseball back to Monticello.
“There are a lot of great baseball players in Monti,” Lanners told the Times. “We wanted to keep them in Monti.”
With Kounkel signed on as the general manager, in charge of funds, scheduling and other big ticket items, and Lanners in position as the in-game manager, the Polecats once again had a base.
But they still had plenty of building to do.
The first step following their conversation last summer was for Lanners to conduct a canvas search of the local baseball players he knew, making sure there was enough interest to field a team.
Once it was determined that there was, reentry into the North Star League became a series of hoops that the Polecats, specifically Kounkel and Lanners, had to jump through.
“It was all logistical and political stuff,” said Lanners.
After all of the paper work, meetings, and wheeling and dealing, it came down to a vote by league members. Lanners and Kounkel had to leave the room while the vote was taken.
“It was nerve-wracking,” said Lanners.
But not for long. When they were called back into the room, they found out they’d been admitted back into the North Star League on a three-year probationary deal.
Up and down first season
With the logistics finally behind them, the Polecats were able to get down to the business of playing baseball at the beginning of this summer.
Fielding a team of approximately 17 guys, featuring 13-14 regulars, Monticello has gotten off to a so-so start in their first season.
The team is 3-6 following a recent one-run win and a one-run loss.
Lanners said it’s a young group, and one that he expects to continue to get better. When Kounkel is there, he is the elder statesmen of the team. When he’s not, it’s Lanners, at just 25 years of age, who clocks in as the oldest player.
Because of that, finding consistency has at times been a little tough in the first year.
“They’re young college guys that work and have lives,” said Lanners. “It’s been a bit of a rocky road, but, we’re getting there.”
The Cats certainly aren’t short on talent. They have seven or eight guys who play or played college baseball at some point in their careers.
Among them is Matt McNeil, the starting center fielder, who has been a stud for the Polecats so far.
“[He’s been] the biggest surprise for me,” said Lanners. “He’s just been hitting the snot out of the ball.”
Other key players are guys like Jake Schmitz, Jakob Kounkel, Hayden Laimer and Ben Schaben. Kounkel and Schaben have been two of the team’s top pitchers, along with Mitch Roberts and Kevin Flesch.
Lanners said the Magic have also been strong in the field thus far, led by the infield duo of Schmitz and Laimer.
“We’ve got some flashy gloves in the infield,” he said. “Jake and Hayden are fun to watch.”
While Lanners and Kounkel certainly opened the year hoping to compete for the division title in Class B of the North Star League, Lanners said they were also realistic.
“It is an adjustment year,” he said. “You hate to say the cliche, but it really is for us.”
But, there is quite a bit of season left. And with a record of 3-6, and 2-3 (tied for third) in the division, the Polecats still have a chance to make some noise in their first year back.
“We’ve got a month here where we just gotta put the hammer down,” said Lanners, referring to the home stretch of the season, before playoffs begin in early August.
But regardless of just how hard that hammer falls, Lanners said it has already been a successful season in other ways. And he said he owes much of that to the help of Kounkel.
“He’s just been a phenomenal asset,” said Lanners. “We’re very thankful and lucky to have Joe. He’s very knowledgeable about the game.”
Also, it’s been great to see Monti kids back in Monti jerseys.
“These kids are busting their butts everyday,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility. We want to represent Monticello to the best of our abilities.”
And lastly, Lanners has loved to see the youth movement, both on the team and in the stands.
“We’ve had a lot of good support,” he said. “It’s nice seeing young kids come out to enjoy the game.”
The next chance to enjoy a home Polecats game, which are free, is Wednesday, July 16, at home against Albertville at 7:30 p.m. That night is also on the schedule as the night that Rick Habek is set to be inducted into the North Star League Hall of Fame.
If you want to travel to see the Cats, they will be in Albertville this Sunday to take on the Villains at 5 p.m.
The Polecats play their home games at Monticello High School.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at firstname.lastname@example.org