Powered by progress: Midgets hope last year’s experience carries into 2019
Coming off the program's fifth state championship in 2016 and a trip to the state title game in 2017, the Dickinson High boys baseball team experienced a year of transition during 2018.
Fielding a youthful squad after the loss of several program veterans, the Midgets struggled out of the gate last season, dropping their first six games after being outscored 56-11 and out-hit by a 63-19 margin. From there, Dickinson righted the ship, splitting its final 16 regular games before falling in the West Region Tournament.
As the Midgets prepare for the 2019 campaign, head coach Pete Dobitz hopes that last year's growing pains serve as a launching point for better results this season. With the focus shifting from teaching the basics to harnessing his players' skills, Dobitz anticipates improvement within the team's defense and progression on the hill.
"That's where, looking at the Legion program and last year, the guys that got some quality innings on varsity, those are the guys that you expect to rise to the top right off the bat," Dobitz said. "I know it's a different level, but your stuff on the mound is what it is, you progress to get a little more movement as you get older and you learn a little bit more about the physics of the baseball. In a spring season and a season that's so short and quick like this, sometimes a guy that you didn't really expect to be your number one or number two during the year ends up being your top-notch guys at West Region or state time."
According to Dobitz, his team's biggest potential strength is pitching depth, an element that becomes invaluable following the graduation of Dawson Dutchak and Chris Zubke. The duo each made a team-high eight appearances last season, as Dutchak paced the team with 34 ⅔ innings pitched with Zubke right behind with 30 ⅓ innings on the mound.
"We're looking at five, six, seven guys trying to vie for a spot to get on the mound to start games," Dobitz said. "When you have two seven-inning (games) that count all through the year and with the weather, who knows, you might be playing three doubleheaders in a week. That might be a benefit for us. The big thing is, with the cold weather in the early season, you just have to monitor pitch counts and monitor arm strength and arm soreness."
Who will emerge as the team's front-end starters? Time will tell, but there are a plethora of arms that will be in the running. Seniors Morgan Wardner and Justin Berger are joined by sophomores Nathaniel Jilek and Joseph Pavek, and junior Kobe Krenz as pitchers that contributed last season. Junior Isaac Gjerde and sophomore Nick Deschamp will see time on the hill after spending time on junior varsity and with the Dickinson Roughriders Legion program last year.
The person who will be catching pitches from those players is sophomore Logan Bentz. Not very often has a player as young as Bentz been slotted in as the team's starting catcher, but the sophomore is up to the challenge.
"I'm just looking forward to learning as much as I can from my coach and just try to become a leader for my team," Bentz said.
Freshman Troy Berg is the team's backup catcher. While the team is young behind the plate, Dickinson may be most vulnerable at the plate. The Midgets will have the services of senior infielder Cody Maier, who was selected to the All-West Region team last year, but will start the season without infielder Jaren Hugelen after the junior broke his ankle during the winter. Void of its clean-up hitter, the orange and black may rely on playing small-ball.
"I've always preached from day one, starting here in 1999, that speed kills. So if we can get guys on base and use your speed, you can do some good things there," Dobitz said. "We've got to find a way to protect Cody a little bit, too; get somebody behind him that can hit the ball, too. That is really one of our emphasis right now, is hitting and seeing where we are with our at-bats."
Disruptive pieces toward the top of the Dickinson battling order, Wardner and Pavek are capable of getting on base often and stealing bases. Leading the Midgets with 15 stolen bags and 12 walks, Wardner was third on the team with .484 on-base percentage amongst players with at least 10 plate appearances in 2018.
Pavek struggled to a .218 batting average, but thanks to seven walks and being hit three times, his on-base percentage rose to .338 last year. He was perfect on the base paths, swiping eight bags without getting caught stealing. His bat improved during the summer, hitting .295 in 129 at-bats.
That is all good news for Maier, who led the Midgets in most of the offensive statistical categories one season ago. One of Dickinson's three seniors, Maier hopes to build off a year where he batted .444, hit 10 doubles and drove in 15 RBIs while scoring 16 times.
"My goal for me, individually, is to play the best that I can and show what my hard work has done this offseason. As a team, I hope that we can play to the best of our abilities," Maier said. "Definitely (building) strength in the weight room, we've been lifting all winter, even through basketball season. Lots and lots of reps in the (batting) cage, lots of ground balls, and lots and lots of hard work."
Dickinson has qualified for the state tournament 13 times since 2000. Meanwhile, Bismarck Century enters this season as the defending region and state champions. Dobitz believes state appearance No. 14 could be in the forecast as he envisions his team battling from the middle of the pack. From there, anything is possible.
"I think we are going to be right there around three, four, five (seeds), and if we progress faster than I've projected, then we are going to give Bismarck Century a run at the title, but it all comes down to progression and how well we are playing. ... It's about progression at the end of the year and not piling wins during the year," Dobitz said.