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Amateur baseball: Staying on the diamond

FILE PHOTO The Wilmont Cardinals’ Blake Rogers throws to first after fielding a bunt against the Worthington Cubs on June 15. Rogers is playing for Wilmont — as well as the Worthington Post 5 American Legion team — while home for the summer from Iowa Lakes Community College. Rogers batted .370 and was fourth in the conference in hitting for the Lakers last spring.

Southwestern Minnesota might just be the perfect place to catch some big-time collegiate baseball players in action.

Throughout the region, some highly-decorated players from the college ranks are helping out their hometown squads as part of an amateur team. It’s something that coaches not only allow, but encourage as it helps athletes get their reps in during the offseason in live-game situations.

“I was actually debating about whether I was going to come back to Jackson for the summer or not,” said Pat Rients, a Jackson County Central graduate and current designated hitter for Southwest Minnesota State in Marshall. “When I told my coach that I wasn’t sure, he actually put me in touch with one of our admissions counselors who is a coach with the Marshall A’s. So, whether I was playing for Jackson or Marshall, he wanted me to be playing this summer.”

Rients might have the most brightly-colored feathers in his cap among all current area amateur players. After redshirting in 2013, Rients said he was just hoping to earn a spot in the lineup at SMSU this season. He ended up cracking the Mustangs’ starting lineup in 49 of their 50 games and did a whole lot more than just earn his place.

The junior earned second team All-American Honors for both the American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings and the National Collegiate Baseball Writer’s Association. Rients led Mustangs with a .369 batting average while bashing 19 home runs, which placed him second in the nation at any level.

“Everything went really well,” Rients said in an understatement. “Starting off the season, I was thinking I’d be lucky just to have a spot on the team. Then I started hitting and the team started to play well. It was great just to have everything click like that.”

This summer, Rients is back in his hometown of Jackson and has been equally as productive for the Bulls. They are yet to lose a game this season one year after a disappointing end to 2013 in which they failed to advance out of the league playoffs.

“Things have been going great,” Rients said. “Our pitching has been really good and we’ve got some new guys on the team that have really helped out. It’s really great to have everything working out like it has so far.”

Another player who got his first full spring on the college diamond this year was 2013 Worthington graduate Blake Rogers. As a freshman at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Rogers hit .370 and was fourth in the Iowa Community Colleges Athletic Conference in hitting, earning him second team All-Region honors.

After a successful spring, Rogers is pulling double duties this summer. Not only is he playing amateur ball with the Wilmont Cardinals, he is also playing for the Worthington American Legion Post 5 squad. Like Rients, Rogers said the adjustment back to playing in the summer was a little more difficult than preparing for the collegiate season. Each said it is undoubtedly a different pace.

“Probably the pitching speed,” Rogers said of what was the biggest adjustment in coming back to amateur ball. “That was one big thing. We’re used to seeing pitching in the mid-to-high 80s or even low 90s, so it’s coming in slower. Also the intensity. College baseball is pretty intense and amateur ball can be pretty laid-back. It can get intense at times, too, but it’s not like college.”

Both Rogers and Rients said it took them three or four games to get comfortable at the plate this summer. Now, each has adjusted well and is enjoying a strong season. Yet, it does beg the question: How hard will it be to adjust back to the college speed?

“I was just telling some of the guys that it’s going to be tough to go back to the harder stuff,” Rients said. “But we have fall ball and in the spring we have live-hitting in the gym for the whole month of January. That should help me be ready once the season actually starts.”

Rients and Rogers are just two in a litany of collegiate players showing their skills in the Gopher and First Nite League this summer.

Luverne’s Skyler Wenninger is playing for the Redbirds this summer after a fine freshman season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. At second base, he earned a conference gold glove award after committing only three errors in 36 starts. He also hit .302 and only struck out 19 times in 126 at bats.

Max Waletich and Taylor Nawrocki are mainstays in the lineups for both the Fairmont Martins and the Minnesota State (Mankato) Mavericks. Lucas Henning, who is playing for Wilmont this summer, pitched six innings, allowed just two earned runs and struck out six for the Mavs this spring.

Trevon Bargfrede and Bryce Christopher are both playing for the Lakefield Horned Frogs this summer after making names for themselves on the college diamong this spring. Bargfrede started 18 games, hit .281 and scored 16 runs at Concordia-St. Paul while Christopher pitched 33 innings and went 3-1 at Rochester Technical and Community College. There are also current and former Minnesota West players scattered throughout the region.

For college baseball players, the summer is their downtime. The coaches give them workouts to do during the offseason, but otherwise it’s up to them to keep their skills sharp.

“If you don’t play for a team in the Northwoods League or something, they encourage you to play and get as many reps as you can,” Rogers said. “They want you to work on your skills. Just get into the cage and get your hacks in.”

Zach Hacker

Zach is the Daily Globe sports reporter. He has previously been a sports editor at both the Waseca County News in Waseca, Minn., and The Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas. He is originally from New Richland, Minn., and now lives in Worthington with his dog; a beagle-corgi mix named Homer. In his spare time he enjoys spending time with family and friends, pontooning on St. Olaf Lake and watching professional and collegiate sports.

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