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Tough act to follow

Mark Juberian is counting on the Park Rapids baseball team to have an even better season than last year.

Reaching those high expectations is going to be tough.

A year ago the Panthers set a school record for wins in a season by going 22-5 and advancing to the state tournament for the first time since 1986. Park Rapids won the Section 8AA title and ended up winning the consolation title at the state Class AA tournament.

"We hope to improve on what we did last year," said Juberian. "It's going to be tough to get back to state. We have our work cut out for us, but if we stay healthy, I think we can get back."

Having to replace three starters and having to face some tough teams in a revised section will provide a challenge as the Panthers seek to repeat as section champs.

The Panthers have to replace two starting pitchers in Chris Bruhn and Brandon Gartner and a starting center fielder in Doug Haas. Bruhn was named to the all-state tournament team and led the Panthers with a 7-2 record and 2.33 ERA while batting .360 with 25 runs and 25 RBI. Gartner went 5-1 with a 1.57 ERA last season. Bruhn was named to the Mid-State Conference and Section 8A teams while Gartner was an all-conference honorable mention selection. Haas hit .258 with 10 runs and 14 RBI.

On the positive side, the Panthers return seven starters from last year's state team in seniors Tom Juberian, Grant Dierkhising, Zach Lehrke, Eli Donatelle, Curtis Tolle and Kyle Blanchard and junior Dylan Walsh. Juberian, Dierkhising and Lehrke will serve as captains.

Juberian returns as the starting shortstop after hitting .361 (30 for 83) and leading the team with 33 runs, 25 RBI and eight home runs. Juberian also had six doubles and eight stolen bases and was named to the all-conference and all-section teams.

Dierkhising started at third base and batted .344 (32 for 93) with 18 runs, 20 RBI, five doubles, three homers and nine steals. Dierkhising also went 4-0 on the mound with a 2.13 ERA, allowing 11 runs on 23 hits and 10 walks with 18 strikeouts in 23 innings. Dierkhising also earned all-conference honors.

Lehrke, another all-conference player, hit .337 (31 for 92) with 20 runs, 16 RBI, nine doubles and 12 stolen bases. Lehrke returns at catcher and will also pitch after making five appearances and posting a 3.36 ERA last season.

Donatelle capped off the season by throwing a one-hitter in the Panthers' 11-0 win over Kenyon in the consolation round of the state tournament. Donatelle was an all-conference honorable mention player who hit .394 (26 for 66) with 14 runs, nine RBI, six doubles and four steals as a right fielder. Donatelle ended the season with a 5-1 record and 1.33 ERA, allowing six runs on 11 hits with 14 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings.

Tolle led off and played left field, finishing the season with a .247 batting average (18 for 73) with 19 runs, 10 RBI, three doubles and seven steals.

Blanchard served as the Panthers' designated hitter most of last season and batted .284 (21 for 74) with 12 runs, 15 RBI and four doubles.

Walsh started at second base and hit .250 (5 for 20) with two runs and three RBI.

Looking to fill the other starting spots and provide depth off the bench will be the five other players who saw varsity action last year: juniors Cody Boterman, Justin Peterson, Kevin Vaadeland and Cody Schirmers and sophomore Kevin McMorrow.

Boterman played second base and batted .200 (3 for 15) with three runs, three RBI and three steals. Peterson hit .304 (7 for 23) with seven runs, seven RBI and two steals as an outfielder. Vaadeland batted .150 (3 for 20) with five runs, four RBI and three steals at first base and right field. Schirmers and McMorrow saw limited time but will be counted on to fill key roles this season.

Rounding out this year's varsity roster are senior Thor Jorgenson and sophomores Tucker Coborn, Paul Dirks and Dan Ricke.

Vying for starting spots are Blanchard, Vaadeland and Jorgenson at first base; Walsh, Boterman, Coborn, Schirmers and Dirks at second base; Juberian, Dierkhising and Boterman at shortstop; Dierkhising, Donatelle, Tolle and Juberian at third base; Donatelle, Schirmers, Tolle, Peterson and Walsh in the outfield; and Lehrke, Tolle, Schirmers, Coborn and Ricke at catcher. Starting spots will vary depending on who is pitching.

Dierkhising, Donatelle, Juberian, Lehrke, Vaadeland, Boterman, Blanchard and Jorgenson will all be counted on to pitch this spring.

The junior varsity roster will consist of juniors Josh Domino and Jacob Swenson; Dirks, Ricke and fellow sophomores Mitchell Long, Jack Mercado and Cameron Theis; and freshmen Tyler Barr, Nicholas Belfiori, Tarrin Hamblin, Brennan Larson, Dustin Martine, Daniel Pike, Christian Ridlon and Matthew Sullivan.

"We have to find pitchers to replace the innings Bruhn and Gartner gave us," said Juberian. "Defensively I think we'll be OK, but on the offensive end we have some question marks. If we can get production from everybody, we'll be OK."

The section has a new look with the 16 teams being split into two divisions. Joining Park Rapids in the north half will be Bagley, Crookston, Detroit Lakes, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, Roseau, Thief River Falls and Warroad. The south half features Breckenridge, Fergus Falls, Frazee, Ottertail Central, Pelican Rapids, Pequot Lakes, Perham and Wadena-Deer Creek. The playoffs will feature double-elimination play, which is also new this season.

"The kids are excited about baseball. They have to take the challenge and fulfill their roles," said Juberian. "We have a lot to be proud of, but it's a new year and everyone is 0-0. The kids got a taste of playing in a state tournament and they liked it. They want to get back. It's definitely going to be tough, but I'm confident we can get back."