Building a winnerHettinger baseball team making its 1st trip to state in only its 3rd season
HETTINGER — Struggling can often lead to success in athletics.
By: Dustin Monke, The Dickinson Press
HETTINGER — Struggling can often lead to success in athletics.
“You’ve always got to have failure before you have success,” Hettinger head baseball coach Joe Perkins said. “You learn from it that way. You lose enough, you get sick of it.”
It didn’t take Perkins’ Black Devils long to get tired of losing.
In Hettinger’s third year of having a high school baseball program, and only its second season sanctioned by a North Dakota High School Activities Association, the team is in its first Class B state tournament.
A few years ago, the only June baseball boys from Hettinger played was the American Legion variety.
But tonight, the Region 8 champion Black Devils begin their first high school state tournament against Region 1 winner Kindred-Richland at Mandan Memorial Ballpark.
Whether Hettinger comes home with a state title or the eighth-place trophy, the season can be considered nothing short of a success.
After all, no one expected winning to come this quickly. Not the players, and especially not Perkins.
The first season, the Black Devils played a club schedule and traveled hundreds of miles for nearly every game.
“Not a lot of people wanted to come play us, so we went up there and played them,” Perkins said.
Last spring, Hettinger played its first official high school season in the modern NDHSAA era and Perkins said he began to see signs of life.
“When this team learns how to win, they’re going to be good because they have the ability,” Perkins said, recalling what he told people last spring, “and that’s what they did this year.”
Last week, in the Region 8 tournament, the Black Devils came from behind to win each game.
Senior Matt Schneider got one of his three game-winning hits this season, an RBI single, to beat Washburn-Wilton-Center-Stanton 3-2 in the eighth inning of the region championship game.
“They’ve learned how to win,” Perkins said. “Their mentality is, ‘OK, it’s only one run, it’s only two runs, we can get it back.’”
Last season, the Black Devils finished 5-15.
This spring, they have a 10-7 overall record but were 7-1 in region games and 3-0 in the region tournament. All six of their losses came with junior varsity players on the field and many of their starters in the dugout.
Perkins remembers harping on his team last season, trying to get his points across and hoping to make players understand that, yes, there’s a method to his madness.
There hasn’t been much of that this season, he said.
“When I first started, I used to chew a lot. I was kind of hard on these guys,” Perkins said. “I don’t think once last week in regionals, even when we were down a little bit, I didn’t say anything. They proved to me that they can get the job done without me saying anything. That’s huge.”
It doesn’t hurt to have some boys who can play the game, either.
Senior leadoff hitter and shortstop Nate Pierce is batting .526 and leads the team in RBI, runs and stolen bases. He plans to play for the University of Mary next season.
Pitchers Ben Laufer, Chad Mosbrucker and Gavin Schweitzer are a combined 10-1 this season, throwing in all of the team’s region games.
Senior Drew Kugel bats .405 and is second on the team in RBI. Junior second baseman McCahen Schweitzer bats .428 with one error in the field.
Mosbrucker and Laufer, both juniors, can also hit. They have batting averages of .468 and .371, respectively, and Laufer has the team’s only home run.
Like many of his teammates, Schneider only began playing organized baseball three years ago when the club team first formed.
“I was horrible when I started out,” said Schneider, who bats .333. “There’s a lot of kids out there playing who are still pretty rough. But with Joe, we’ve gotten three to four times better.”
It isn’t just a Hettinger production, either.
The Black Devils’ players come from Hettinger, Scranton, Mott-Regent and Lemmon, S.D.
Scranton brings a busload of players, driven by assistant coach Jeremy Dietchman. Two players from Mott drive about 45 minutes one-way. Gavin Schweitzer, a senior all-region selection, commutes from Lemmon.
When the team steps on the baseball field, however, they leave their football and basketball rivalries at the gate.
“It’s been a good time,” said Mosbrucker, a junior from Mott in his first year with the team. “We’re big rivals during basketball and football, but when we get down here, we all get a long. Everything has been a blast so far. I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
The area is getting behind the team, too.
In Hettinger, just as they do for the football, basketball or wrestling teams, business have painted signs on windows supporting the team. The city even held a send-off rally for the Black Devils on Wednesday afternoon.
Before every game this season, Perkins said he would hung 37 banners of the team’s sponsors on the outfield fence. He said the club has received financial help from other individuals, too.
“The support is phenomenal,” Perkins said. “We would never have a team if it wasn’t for these towns, with the financial support of the people who have helped with the baseball club.”
Mirror Lake Park has long been considered one of the nicest baseball fields in southwest North Dakota.
The lake, surrounded by buttes, and a row of the Evergreen trees just beyond the outfield fence make for a beautiful ballpark setting. The grain elevators to the north of the field give it a little extra small-town feel.
Yet today, many teams — especially those in the class above them — would likely scoff at the Black Devils’ stomping grounds.
The stands are well maintained, but older.
There’s no quick-drying Agrilime infield dirt. Just a plain-old, hard gravel-like surface that collects large puddles near first and second base. Perkins said a new field tarp, donated by the Hettinger American Legion post, will soon make that nuisance irrelevant.
The grass infield is lush but only two years old, and the outfield grass is about half a foot too high.
Perkins added that the field looks wonderful when it can be maintained, but constant rain has made mowing it impossible since the regular season ended, he said.
The field doesn’t have a scoreboard either. But it’s coming soon.
Perkins, who works for the Hettinger Park Board, said the hope is to have the new scoreboard — which he said is roughly the size of the one at Dickinson’s Southside Municipal Ballpark — erected in right field by the time the Legion season begins.
Just like Mirror Lake Park, the baseball team that occupies the field appears poised for improvement.
Mosbrucker said he and McCahen Schweitzer hope to convince more players who play only Legion baseball to ride with them to Hettinger next spring.
“We’re going to try and get some more people coming down here next year,” Mosbrucker said. “Heck, we’re going to state. Maybe we can go to state again next year.”
Pierce said he has noticed an upswing in the participation of Little League-age players this spring, too.
If those players continue playing, he believes the program will continue to build into something great.
“If it keeps building, it’s going to be kind of a powerhouse,” Pierce said. “It keeps getting bigger and bigger. All the little kids in all the towns are pretty psyched about the team.
“We’ve got everyone excited about baseball again.”