The hornets' nest
The talk started after the state champion Dickinson Roughriders lost out in the Central Plains Regional last August in Minot.
Can they repeat? Can the coaching staff and players continue to bring success to a team that was once the laughing stock of American Legion baseball in North Dakota?
With the return of the big four, the chances were strong.
Stephen Laylock, Cole Frenzel, Ben Herauf and Tyler Steffan returned this season to form one of the most powerful lineups in the state.
The results are there: All four are hitting over .400 and have combined for 44 home runs, helping Dickinson to a record of 33-9. The Roughriders won the regular season for the second straight year and even did something they failed to accomplish last year -- win the state seeding tournament.
With all that behind them, the Roughriders are looking for their second consecutive state title when the Class A state tournament starts today in Wahpeton. Dickinson plays the host team at 7 p.m. MDT on John Randall Field.
"We can't really look at (a second title) as the goal," Dickinson coach Andy Emard said. "I don't care how good a team is. To win a state championship, we have to have a lot of things go our way."
Offensively, it starts with the hornets' nest at the top.
Laylock, who hits out of the 2-hole, precedes Frenzel, Herauf and Steffan, in that order. It's an order that can't be taken lightly.
"That's what we build our offense around," Emard said. "You can't really pitch around anyone because you've got someone behind them. It's the highlight of our offense."
Minot coach Todd Larson knows not to take them lightly. The Vistas were the only team to deal Dickinson a loss in last weekend's state seeding tournament, though Minot felt the Riders' wrath when the Vistas were swept in Minot earlier this season.
"Our game plan against them is to work them hard inside, and just try to throw strikes early in the zone," Larson said. "Stay ahead of the count and throw non-fastballs in fastball counts."
Larson is the longest tenured coach in Class A Legion baseball competition. In his 11th season as head coach of the Vistas in which he's compiled a 463-193 record, Larson has looked at a lot of different lineups.
His opinion on Dickinson's fearsome foursome?
"That's as dangerous of a 2-through-5 combination as I've seen in all of my years coaching Legion baseball," Larson said. "And I've been around a long time."
Each of them bring something different, but mesh perfectly with the team's offensive concept.
Laylock is known for his efficient and productive at-bats. While his official on-base percentage is unknown, Frenzel has some idea.
"I bet it's around .500," Frenzel said.
Laylock's ability has frustrated Larson and the Vistas.
"The guy always seems to be on base," Larson said. "You throw everything at him and he always finds a way to put the ball in play. He's a real tough out."
Emard said Laylock thrives on his technique.
"He keeps his hands inside the baseball so well," Emard said. "He's on time with any pitcher. He doesn't get fooled."
"He's a really good 2-hitter," Frenzel said. "He doesn't strike out much."
Frenzel would have the best idea, watching him bat from the on-deck circle while awaiting another showdown. Frenzel, with his 24 home runs in 42 games played, has the ability to make a pitcher rethink his entire approach.
"There's not very much that he doesn't do well," Herauf said.
Like Laylock, Frenzel, who hits from the left side, doesn't whiff very often, though home runs have become his forte.
"At any time, he's able to drive the ball out of the ballpark," Emard said. "He's able to drive the ball to all fields. He's a dangerous person at the plate."
Frenzel is headed to the University of Arizona on a baseball scholarship this fall.
"He's had a tremendous career," Larson said. "He's a very dangerous hitter."
Though he was well known at the time, Herauf, a cleanup hitter, made arguably his biggest splash when he belted five home runs and knocked in 15 runs at state last year, earning him the tournament's most valuable player award.
"Ben's the best high-school hitter I've ever coached in my life," Emard said. "There isn't a ball that he hits that isn't hard."
Frenzel can speak to the ability of Herauf, who came back to play Legion after starting at the University of Mary this spring.
"He hits the cover off the ball," Frenzel said. "If he gets the ball elevated, it's gone. We know if (Laylock and I) do our jobs, he'll knock us in."
Larson specifically noted Herauf's maturity the past couple years.
"Ben's been fun to watch mature as a hitter," Larson said. "Three years ago, there were ways to get around him. But the last two years, he's been very, very dangerous."
Batting fifth in the order is Steffan, who spent almost his entire baseball career batting leadoff. He also joined the Roughriders after playing baseball for Mary this spring. Steffan moved down to the 5-hole to protect Herauf.
"He can hit the ball out of the park and he also brings the speed element," Emard said. "He can lay down a drag bunt. He's close to (Ben and Cole) in RBIs."
Having the four of them in a row causes a lot of headaches for coaches.
"Two college hitters and two pretty good high school hitters," Frenzel said. "It's kind of like pick your poison."
The Roughriders didn't run into many problems the first time they played Wahpeton. Dickinson swept 14-0 and 18-0 at home on June 24. Nonetheless, Emard's not about to overlook any team at this point.
"Wahpeton is a team with nothing to lose," Emard said. "They're playing in front of their home fans."
Emard said Tommy Peters will most likely start on the hill.
"We need quality starts," Emard said. "Not just with runs, but to keep them down in pitch counts. There are going to be teams with a lot more pitching depth than us. These are nine-inning games. We can't afford to roll out three pitchers a game."
Led by Laylock, the pitching staff includes starters Steffan and Eric Seiler. After that, guys like Herauf and Kyle Breen could see plenty of time on the mound.
However, it could take an even stronger pitching performance by the other team to hold down the Roughriders' lineup.
"It's going to take a very off day by the Dickinson hitters (to beat them)," Larson said. "You have to have a top front-line guy on the hill to give you a shot with them.
"If you're not hitting your spots, before you blink you're going to be down 5-0."