To call what the Magic baseball team started a month ago a turnaround would be an understatement. Or inadequate at the least. A turnaround it has been, indeed. But rather than the slow turnaround that you may see at the end of a dead-end road on a Sunday cruise, or in the middle of a long run, this turnaround has been more akin to one seen during a shuttle run at the pro football combine. A snap of the fingers, it seems, and Monti went from an 0-4 team that twice was beat pretty thoroughly to a 12-6 squad that is now handing out those beatings with regularity.
Monti has reeled off 12 wins in its last 14 games, including a recent six-game winning streak that was snapped with an extra-inning loss Friday night. Not to worry, Monti bounced right back with a 2-0 shutout victory against Princeton Monday to maintain the positive momentum.
Monti has been focused all year on getting better each game, and each week. But coach Cole Deibele admitted that coming into the year with a lot of turnover and youth in the lineup, the coaching staff wasn’t sure just how that process would pan out.
“You always kind of wonder how that growth is going to go, and how long it’s going to take,” he said on Tuesday.
It didn’t take long to figure out that for this group, it would be quick. The team relies heavily on a sophomore class that has been extremely successful coming up through the ranks, and Deibele said their mentality has meshed with that of his stud upperclassmen.
“They hate losing more than they like winning,” said Deibele, in describing the group’s competitive nature. “And when they do lose, it just drives them to get better.”
The four early losses must have provided plenty of drive for the Magic, who have been outstanding since. In the first four games of the season, Monti was outscored 32-5. Starting with a 3-1 win against Rogers on April 15, Monti has outscored its opponents by a 76-29 margin.
“It’s been a huge turnaround,” said Deibele.
Leading the way has been pitching and defense. Monti has allowed 1 run or less in eight of their 12 wins. Deibele deemed each area “outstanding” for the Magic thus far.
Pitching has carried the majority of the load, led by star senior Nick Zwack and sophomore Alex Otto. Zwack, who is headed to Xavier to pitch next season and was recently selected for the state all star game this summer, is currently 5-2 with a 1.53 ERA. The left-hander is tied for the state lead in strikeouts, with a nearly incomprehensible 82 punch-outs in 45.67 innings. He is one of just three pitchers in the state with more than 70 on the season. He’s also working on a scoreless innings streak that currently sits at 16.
With pitch count limits put in place this season by the state high school league, Deibele said he has seen Zwack get much more aggressive in attacking hitters early. Even still, with hitters knowing the hard-throwing senior is coming with strikes, they’ve had a hard time putting the barrel of the bat on the ball.
“That just goes to show how good his stuff really is,” said Deibele, who noted that Zwack has been improving a couple of his pitches in recent weeks and should only get better down the stretch run.
Equally impressive this season has been Otto. In his first season pitching at the varsity level, the sophomore has compiled a record of 4-2, with a measly ERA of .77. Otto’s punch-out total is nothing to sneeze at either, with 43 strikeouts in 36.33 innings. Monday, Otto threw six shutout innings to pick up the victory in Monti’s game against the Tigers.
Deibele said the duo is right there with Andrew Manning and Tanner Eckhart as the most potent combinations he’s had to anchor a pitching staff.
“It’s hard to beat what these two guys are doing right now,” he said.
Deibele has been equally pleased with the job everyone has done backing up the pitching staff.
“Our defense has played very well when we’ve needed them to,” he said, pointing out that they’ve been able to step up in big situations, such as against Buffalo when the defense helped pitchers strand 11 runners in a 3-1 win.
Monti is averaging less than two errors per game on the season, including just one error from second-baseman Brady Boeckers on 20 assists and 7 putouts and four from shortstop Tommy Blackstone on 23 putouts and 22 assists.
The third major part of the game, offense, has continued to be a bit up and down for Monti. They’ve exploded for double-digit runs three times during the last month, but they’ve also been held to four and under a handful of times.
One player that has hardly ever been contained during Monti’s tear is Blackstone. The sophomore has hit safely in 14 of Monti’s last 15 games, and is 22 for 45 during that stretch. Monti’s lead-off hitter has also walked 11 times in those 15 games.
“He’s found a balance of attacking good pitches,” said Deibele, who said Blackstone is an aggressive hitter by nature. “When he gets his pitch, he’s ready to hammer it.”
Blackstone is also a terrific baserunner, which means Monti has a good threat to score anytime the sophomore gets on base. Blackstone is second on the team with seven stolen bases on the season and paces Monti with 19 runs scored.
Mitchell Bjellos has been another valuable piece to the offensive puzzle for the Magic. Bjellos is second on the team with a .352 batting average and 16 runs scored. He also leads the team with nine stolen bases.
Deibele said he and the other coaches expected just this kind of season from the senior.
“He’s a guy that’s played a ton of baseball in his life,” said Deibele. “He’s just a well-versed baseball player.”
Zwack has been Monti’s third key cog on offense, as the senior is hitting .306 on the year with eight walks and leads the Magic with 14 RBI.
All put together, it’s been one well-oiled baseball machine for a little more than a month now. But all it’s done so far is put them in position to be successful where it really matters, the postseason.
Thursday night, Monti fell 10-0 to Rocori, a section foe. The loss means Monti will likely enter postseason play as the three seed and get one home game before potentially traveling to second-seeded Rocori for a rematch. St. Cloud Tech, one of the state’s best teams, will be the top seed in the section.
Regardless of what seed they end up as, Monti will enter the postseason as a contender, and looking to erase some bad memories from postseasons past.
The head coach believes that this is the group to do it.
“This group, it’s just a different feel,” said Deibele. “This group just expects to win.”
Monti wraps up the regular season tonight with a 7 p.m. game against Rocori at Monticello High School. Section seeds will be determined by Friday, and the opening round of postseason play will be Tuesday, May 30.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]