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Baseball: Lakers see more success after big fall and winter seasons

Minnewaska third baseman Colin Weidauer throws over to first base for an out during Tuesday's West Central Conference game against Morris Area. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)1 / 5
Minnewaska senior pitcher Matt Gruber throws during the first inning against Morris Area-Chokio-Alberta on Tuesday. Gruber had 11 strikeouts in the complete-game win over the Tigers. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)2 / 5
Minnewaska senior Connor Westberg crosses home plate for the Lakers' first run of the game in the first inning against Morris on Tuesday. Westberg had three of Minnewaska's five hits against the Tigers. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)3 / 5
Minnewaska head coach Brian Gruber encourages his team as the Lakers come off the field on Tuesday night against Morris Area-Chokio-Alberta. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)4 / 5
Minnewaska shortstop Ryan Amundson goes into his throw as first baseman Jake Hoffman waits to record the out against Morris Area-Chokio-Alberta on Tuesday night. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)5 / 5

Minnewaska has had a good run in its boys sports programs throughout this season.

The football team went 7-3 in the fall before the basketball team advanced to the state tournament this winter. Now the baseball team is putting together a winning season after a fifth straight win on Tuesday in a 4-3 game against Morris Area-Chokio-Alberta.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Lakers senior Matt Gruber said after being an integral part in all three seasons. “I think we have to credit all the groups before us too for setting a trend for Minnewaska being dominant in sports.”  

The Lakers got the job done against the Tigers (6-8) by rallying with two outs in the sixth inning. Morris helped them when an error at third base prolonged the inning and put runners on the corners.

Senior Connor Westberg walked in the next at-bat. A bases-loaded wild pitch from Tigers’ left-hander Chandler Vogel then allowed the Lakers’ Sean Kelling to race home for what turned out to be the winning run. Gruber gave up a two-out single in the top of the seventh but got Morris’ Jaret Johnson to ground out to third for the final out.

“I liked the heart, the competition,” Minnewaska head coach Brian Gruber said. “We had six games last week and we’re going to have four games this week. Guys are tired, and I think both teams are facing that right now. I was proud of the guys.”

Coach Gruber likes the way his guys are playing on defense and on the mound, but says the Lakers need to find their bats with the playoffs looming.

Minnewaska had just five hits against Vogel and three of those came from Westberg in the leadoff spot. He put together good at-bats all night with two hard-hit singles, a bunt when the defense played him back and then the walk that extended the inning in the sixth.

“Our coach always instills in us to have an approach and have a game plan,” Westberg said. “Play within yourself and know what you’re going to do.”

Matt Gruber did not need much offense against the Tigers. He went all seven innings on the mound and struck out 11, allowing just two earned runs on six hits and a walk.

“I think my curveball was working well today,” M. Gruber said. “I would have liked to throw a little better. I didn’t feel like I had very good stuff, but I was able to get my curveball over and able to get a win. That’s all that matters.”

Gruber is Minnewaska’s senior ace. The Lakers know what they are going to get out of him most nights, but his dad and head coach likes the pitching depth behind Matt, as well. Junior Isaiah Testa has moved into the number two spot in the rotation after a successful junior varsity and summer season in 2017.

“He’s making that transition and figuring it out,” B. Gruber said. “He gets ahead of a lot of hitters, but then how do you finish them off? I’m proud of what he’s doing. Then we’ve got Sean Kelling who’s kind of been our relief guy. Ryan Christenson has given us some quality innings, and then we’ve been dipping down into the JV a little bit with a couple sophomores throwing up here at the varsity level with all the games we have going.”

The Lakers are 10-4 with three more games this week. After a 5-4 start to the season, they have outscored opponents 32-13 in their last five games.

“I think we’re starting to hit the ball a little better and we’re starting to get a little more comfortable,” M. Gruber said. “We’ve had a couple games now where we’ve been tied or down late in the game, and I think we’re getting comfortable with each other and making those late pushes, which is nice.”

Coach Gruber wants to continue to see that growth at the plate.

“We keep talking about that,” he said. “I think we’ve been outside a little less than a month since the snow and cold weather finally went away. I’m a true believe that the pitchers are always ahead of the hitters when you start a season out. Our pitching and defense have been pretty solid for the most part. That will win you some ball games, but we’re going to have to swing the bats a little better if we’re going to keep going in the postseason.”

The Lakers have positioned themselves well so far in the Section 3AA-North QRF rankings through Minnesota-scores.net. They are currently second in the subsection seeding behind Paynesville (12-1), a team Minnewaska lost to in a 3-2 game on April 27.

“I think we’ll be able to make a deep run,” Westberg said. “We all hope for state, everybody does, but I think we’ll be able to make a deep run.”

The Lakers have been there and done that in their fall and winter seasons. Coach Gruber is a firm believer that the confidence they gained through those seasons can pay dividends this spring, as well.

“I love the kids to play all three sports,” he said. “When the season is done, you put the ball down or the glove down and you move onto the next one. These guys have played together for a long time in every sport. The success they have in football leads to the success they have in basketball and that is definitely contributing to our success. It gives them confidence. They don’t panic in these close games.”  

MORRIS AREA     102 000 0 - 3 6 3

MINNEWASKA      210 001 x - 4 5 1

PITCHING - Minnewaska - Matt Gruber - W, 7IP, 6H, 3R, 2ER, 1BB, 11K; Morris - Chandler Vogel - L, 6IP, 5H, 4R, 2ER, 5BB, 5SO

MINNEWASKA OFFENSE - Connor Westberg - 3-3, BB, 1 run, RBI; Ryan Christenson - 0-3, BB, 1 run; Matt Gruber - 1-2, BB, 2B, RBI; Colin Weidauer - 0-1, BB, Sac, RBI; Jake Hoffman - 0-2, Sac; Sean Kelling - 0-2, BB, SB, 1 run; Ryan Amundson - 0-3; Isaiah Testa - 1-3, 1 run; Clay Blair - 0-3

MORRIS OFFENSE - Zach Bruns - 1-3, BB, 2 runs; Jaret Johnson - 1-4, 1 run; Parker Dierks - 2-3, 2B, 2 RBI; Chandler Vogel - 1-2, Sac., RBI; Kevin Asfeld - 0-3; Trevor Voges - 0-3; Brock Anderson - 0-3; Joseph Kleinwolterink - 0-3; Alex Daugherty - 1-3

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

(320) 763-1229
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