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Braves looking for versatility to offset lack of experience

First-year head coach Nick Jasmer is counting on versatility and desire to offset a lack of varsity experience as the Menahga baseball team looks to once again finish above the .500 mark.

Jasmer returns only five letterwinners from a senior-dominated team that went 9-5 to tie for third place in the Park Region Conference standings en route to a 12-9 overall record.

Being counted on to lead the Braves this season are juniors Lars Keranen and Thomas Litzau, sophomores Corey Hataaja and Jonah Howard, and freshman Eddie Salmen.

Litzau and Keranen will be counted on to handle the majority of the pitching duties this spring. Litzau pitched 28.1 innings last season, going 4-1 with a 1.48 ERA. Litzau allowed 19 runs, only six of which were earned, on 23 hits and eight walks while striking out 26 in seven appearances. Litzau, who was an all-conference honorable mention player, started four games and pitched one complete game while recording a save.

Keranen posted a 0-2 record with two saves and a 5.25 ERA in eight games, including two as a starter. Keranen pitched 13.1 innings and allowed 17 runs (14 earned) on 18 hits and nine walks with 10 strikeouts.

Offensively, Litzau played in all 21 games and hit .274 (17 for 62 with two doubles) and scored nine runs while driving in eight. Keranen started all 21 games and batted .220 (13 for 59 with two doubles and a home run) with six runs scored and nine RBI.

Haataja played in 16 games and hit .214 (6 for 28) with three runs scored two RBI while Salmen appeared in 18 games and hit .222 (6 for 27) with four runs. Salmen also made two relief appearances on the mound, allowing two runs on four hits and three walks in 2.1 innings for a 3.00 ERA. Howard played in nine games, scoring twice and driving in a run.

"These five returning letterwinners will be playing multiple positions this upcoming season," said Jasmer, who takes over for Charlie Dormanen, who retired after 21 years in the Menahga baseball program. "They will be doing a lot of pitching plus playing multiple positions out in the field. These guys are versatile and can play anywhere that you need them."

The Braves have several starting spots to fill with the graduation of Al Petila, Mitch Peterson, Charlie Steidler-Thompson, Matt Horsma, Isaac Anderson, Canton Matson and Graham Skoog. Pietila, Peterson, Steidler-Thompson and Anderson earned all-conference honors last season while Horsma and Matson earned all-conference honorable mention honors.

Pietila was the team's MVP and the Park Region Conference Pitcher of the Year after going 6-2 with a 0.99 ERA in 49.1 innings and hitting .493 with 19 runs, 18 stolen bases and 13 RBI in 21 games. Peterson batted .365 with 14 runs and 19 RBI and went 1-1 with a 4.12 ERA in 17 innings and 21 games. Steidler-Thompson played in 17 games and batted .351 with 14 runs and 10 RBI and threw 8.2 innings with a 4.04 ERA. Horsma hit .320 in 12 games. Anderson batted .222 in 17 games. Matson played in all 21 games and batted .205 with 10 runs. Skoog hit .170 in 20 games.

Those players led the Braves to a .285 team batting average and 2.94 team ERA. Menahga received the No. 2 seed in the West for the Section 5A playoffs. A 1-0 loss to No. 7 Sebeka in the first round kept Menahga from making a run at competing for a trip to state.

Looking to fill the other starting spots this spring will be senior Adrian Ness; juniors Joaquim De Gusmao; sophomores Austen Anderson and Patrick Simmons; freshmen Charlie Hodge, Brian Keranen, Jack Pietila and Sam Jackola; and eighth graders Ivan Anderson, Nolan Haataja, Ethan Hendrickson, Aaron Pietila and Henry Salmen. Of that group, Hodge, Anderson and Haataja played in three games last season.

"We have a very young team, so that means there is a lot of opportunities for guys to step up and get a starting role on this team. These guys are so versatile that they will play anywhere that I need them," siad Jasmer, who will be assisted by Scott Petrowski and Zach Kaiser. "I see our strengths being our knowledge of the game, talent and speed. These guys are baseball smart and are able to think quick on their feet. They are incredible athletes as well. They have worked hard this preseason and you can see the talent of these young men emerging. They are fast, so we will be looking to utilize that speed and quickness out in the field and on the base paths."

Jasmer is looking for the Braves to once again be a contender in the conference. Parkers Prairie, the defending state Class A champion, won the Park Region title last season with a 13-1 record while Wadena-Deer Creek finished at 10-4. Menahga and New York Mills tied for third place at 9-5. Pillager defeated Walker-Hackensack-Akeley in the Section 5A title game to advance to state.

"There are really good teams in both the conference and the section. It is going to be a great year for competitive baseball from teams in both the conference and section and I think we can compete right there with them, but it is going to take a lot of effort on our part to keep with those teams. We are young, but we are also competitive and we are going to do everything we can to keep with and beat every team we face," said Jasmer. "I believe we are a huge underdog this year, but we are going to come out every single game and be competitive. I look for us to make some upsets along the road. These guys are young, but they are talented and love the game of baseball. They have that hunger to win and will do whatever to get the 'W.' My expectations are high, as they should be. I want my guys to know that I expect them to go out there every game and compete at the highest level that they can. If we do that, we are going to give every team we face this year a hard-fought game."