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COLLEGE BASEBALL: Bluejays set for season

WORTHINGTON -- This season, Jeff Linder is trying to change the culture in the Minnesota West baseball program.

Last season, the Bluejays started with a victory in their first game.

Eight days later, the Bluejays sweept Vermillion at the Metrodome. At the time, the Bluejays had a 3-7 record.

Then, division play started.

The Bluejays lost their next 20 games before winning their season finale April 29, finishing 4-27 overall and 1-15 in league play.

However, MW is basically starting over this season.

With 24 players on the roster -- and only five sophomores -- Linder and the Bluejays are looking for improvement.

"It's going to take a lot of hard work," Linder said. "Without hard work and positive thinking and trying to improve yourself each and every day, you could be right there again, or worse or better. A little better, a lot better, it depends on what you're thinking, and what your work ethic is and what your mental state of mind is. We have a good group of guys."

Despite bringing in 19 freshmen, the team has quickly bonded in the previous months.

"They really get along," Linder said. "They've done a really good job. Some of that is fall ball, and then you have some of the guys that have played together already and knew each other coming in. The South Dakota boys all know each other."

Linder, who has been with the baseball program for six years, is in his second stint as the head coach.

He was an interim head coach in 2007. In that year, Linder led the Bluejays to the state tournament.

"We're awful young this time," Linder said. "That time when I took over we had a lot of sophomores and a lot of experience in key positions. Now we have a lot of young guys with a lot of good baseball skills. Even better than I'd say we had back then, except for those guys back then had played before in the league and conference and they know what it takes and what it's like. Some of these guys are in for a little bit of an awakening. But it's all part of growing."

Due to poor weather conditions last weekend, the Bluejays' home opener was cancelled.

Monday, the team was heading outside for its first full-team practice. Wednesday, the Bluejays are hoping to open their season.

Starting at midnight, MW will face Mesabi Range in a doubleheader.

Not only will the Bluejays get a chance to be in a game for the first time, Linder will begin to learn how to manage a large roster.

"We haven't been in a game yet, so I'm really going to find out how challenging it's going to be," Linder said. "But it's a good thing and it shows us that we're a sound program. We'll have guys pushing other guys for a position, which is huge. Kids aren't just settled in.

"(Tonight) will be a big feel-out night. We'll probably be rotating kids in quite a bit."

Following Wednesday morning's game, the Bluejays will be at home Friday before playing in the crossover tournament Saturday and Sunday in Austin.

With a full schedule, the Bluejays will look to Ryan Rasche, Jamison Kleinsasser, Travis Hendrickson, Deon Entringer, Ryan Swanson, Corey Polz, Adam McCoy and Matt Gades to handle the pitching duties.

However, only Polz and Swanson are sophomores.

They join Lon Eichenberger, Marcus Schultz and Brad Bentele as the lone second-year players.

"Sophomores are like seniors; we really need as many as possible," Linder said. "But they really kind of kept everybody together and doing things together. We have a bowling night on Tuesday, so they do that as a group. I think all those things help."

Behind the leadership of the returning players, Linder points to team chemistry as a postitive. However, with a large group of players who have never experienced college baseball, Linder expects a learning curve.

"As a young team, we're going to have to make sure we come out playing defense and keep the errors to a minimum," Linder said. "I think with the speed of the game we're going to have a hard time with some of that to start out with. If I'm wrong, that'd be awesome. But without that solid sophomore core in certain spots, it's going to make a huge difference."