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VFW baseball: Tough love in Luverne

LUVERNE -- Several players on the 2017 Luverne VFW baseball team believe they have something to prove next week at the state tournament. And their head coach, Mike Wenninger, is behind them all the way -- pushing them to be the best they can be.

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Luverne VFW baseball head coach Mike Wenninger (far right) and assistant coach Phil Paquette (on his left) go over schedules with the team at a recent pre-state tournament practice session.(Tim Middagh/The Globe)

LUVERNE -- Several players on the 2017 Luverne VFW baseball team believe they have something to prove next week at the state tournament. And their head coach, Mike Wenninger, is behind them all the way -- pushing them to be the best they can be.

“When you have a good play, he’ll give you a head nod. But even if you make the right play, he’ll keep riding you until it’s perfect. It’s actually a good thing,” said one of the team’s top players, Ben Serie.

Teammates agree. Wenninger can be tough.

“He has the highest expectations,” said pitcher/catcher Declan Beers. “You’re probably not going to reach them, because if you reach them he’ll let you know about it. He doesn’t want you to get content.”

The Luverne approach, said Wenninger, is to practice consistently to play consistently. Details must be learned in practice, because players are not generally into details while an actual game is going on. But even when moments turn ugly, a player can’t lose his focus.

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“Weathering the storm,” said the veteran coach. “There’s going to be a bad inning in almost every baseball game. How do you weather that before it gets to be a blizzard? We’re competing against another team. We don’t want to compete against ourselves.”

“The coach always says if you make an error on one play, the ball’s gonna be hit back at you, and you gotta stay focused on the next play,” said pitcher-third baseman Derek Lundgren.

Wenninger is in his 22nd year of coaching the Luverne VFW baseball team. Next spring will be his 22nd as coach of the town’s high school team. Getting the opportunity to manage his future crop of Cardinals while they’re still in the development stage is just the way he likes it.

“I wanted to do VFW. I wanted to do 15-16-year-olds because when they come to me (in high school) I wanted them to know what’s expected of them,” Wenninger said.

In more than two decades of coaching, Wenninger has helped produce many outstanding Luverne baseball outfits. This marks the second consecutive year the VFW team has qualified for state (it lost both of its games in the 2016 tournament), and last spring the Cardinals narrowly missed qualifying for the state high school tourney due to a late comeback by New London-Spicer in the Section 3AA championship.

Back to the front On Thursday, Luverne will open 2017 state VFW play with a 2:30 p.m. game against Duluth East in Willmar.

The Luverners of Post 2757 -- several who played on the 2016 VFW team as well as the 2017 high school squad -- are anxious to perform at a high level.

“We came up just a little bit short in the high school season. It’s nice to get back there after the VFW season,” Lundgren said.

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“We feel like we have something to prove,” said Serie. “We just want to get back up there.”

The VFW squad is made better with its veteran core. Beers, who will be a high school senior in the fall, is in his third season of VFW baseball, and he’s already played two years with the Cardinals. Lundgren describes him as a very good left-handed batter, and a scrappy player.

Serie, the VFW team’s No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher, also plays shortstop and catcher.

Lundgren is a leader like the others, although quieter. “He will not let a ball get by him,” says his coach.

Mark Sterrett, at second base, and high school juniors-to-be Charlie Reisch (CF), Gage Nath (LF) and Jade Smith (3B-P) are also dependable pieces to the puzzle.

Doing the little things Wenninger is quick to credit his players for loving the game, and for being dedicated practice players, as well. He says his assistant coaches Phil Paquette and his son, Skyler Wenninger, are outstanding.

“We’re not the fastest team, we’re not the strongest team, we don’t have the best velocity on the pitching staff,” says Mike. “(The players) like the little things -- picking up signs, taking the extra base, understanding the positioning of the defense when they’re on offense. … You sometimes can’t get amateur players to do that.”

The most experienced Luverne players take pride in what they’ve learned, and they’re happy to pass it on.

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“We know what to expect. We know how to play for Wenninger. We know what it’s like to be on the other side of winning. We know how to teach these younger kids,” Beers said, adding, “I don’t care if they mess up. I want them to learn from their mistakes. I want them to accept criticism, because with Wenninger you’re going to be criticized.”

Because of what happened in the 2016 state tournament, the Post 2757 players like to look upon themselves as underdogs. They also look on themselves as a no-frills, hard-nosed, hard-working team that slides easily into the underdog role.

Given the fact that Wenninger’s teams often rise to the highest level in southwest Minnesota circles, the underdog mentality may or not be apt. But Beers is sticking to it.

“We kind of embrace our underdog role,” he said during a recent practice at Redbird Field. “Because not a lot of people thought we’d do this well. One thing I like about this group is we’re not scared of anyone.”

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Members of the Luverne VFW baseball team jog at Redbird Field in Luverne prior to a practice. The team will begin state tournament play Thursday. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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