The Wisconsin-Superior baseball team went through a difficult transition last summer after Yellowjackets coach Eddy Morgan was named head baseball coach at Concordia (Wis.) University.
UWS had two top players transfer, and Nick Bursik, who was just a year removed from college,
wasn’t named interim head coach until August.
The Yellowjackets have responded with potentially their best season in five decades.
“This is by far the closest team I’ve ever been a part of,” said Bursik, a Woodbury, Minn., native and former UWS pitcher and assistant coach. “Team chemistry is a big thing. Our guys care more about each other than they do themselves, and that’s always a recipe for success. It’s pretty special.”
Leading the way is senior outfielder Tom Fairbanks of Brainerd, Minn.
Fairbanks is batting .473 with 13 home runs, eight triples and 55 RBIs in just 25 games. Projected over a professional 162-game season, that’d be a ridiculous 84 home runs, 52 triples and 357 RBIs. Fairbanks hit .318 with a then-career-best two home runs last year before working on his hitting mechanics to drive the baseball. While record-keeping is spotty at UWS, it’s safe to say Fairbanks is assaulting the program’s record book.
“Tommy embodies everything we look for in a
student-athlete,” Bursik said. “His success hasn’t changed his approach at all. He has worked for
everything he has, and is a jokester. He is a prime example of what it means to be a teammate.”
Matt Vold, Brady Flaherty and Sam Holden are the other leading hitters for a team batting .316, while Travis Elwood, Kyle Gauger and Damian Wiblin are three of the top pitchers.
UWS spent about $250,000 on baseball and soccer facility upgrades last summer and hopes to play home games next weekend.
UWS (16-9 overall, 7-5 WIAC) are second in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference standings, with the top four teams making the league postseason tournament. But Bursik said a lot could change with 10 conference games still to go.
“That will determine everything,” he said. “We weren’t given much love in the preseason rankings, but we just focused on ourselves. We don’t mind taking the underdog approach. It doesn’t faze us. We’ve been overlooked for 40 years.”
SAINTS FEELING HOMESICK St. Scholastica coach Corey Kemp was reached by phone Wednesday afternoon at an interesting location.
“I’m standing on the turf at Wade Stadium,” Kemp said.
Kemp has been inspecting every corner of the historic ballpark in hopes of playing St. Scholastica’s home opener Tuesday against Northland. That game originally was scheduled for April 8.
“And we still might not get it in,” Kemp said.
While Duluth has grand plans for Wade Stadium and continues appealing to the state for help, Kemp said the most pressing need (other than parts of a wall falling down last year) is a new playing surface. The current field has drainage issues.
“We love Wade Stadium and are proud to call it home,” Kemp said. “With a better surface, we could have been out here this weekend. With an artificial surface, we could have been out here in early April, and in some years, March. Think about all the teams that could be playing baseball here. A new surface would solve a lot of problems for baseball in Duluth.”
With annual weather woes, it’s a small miracle the Saints are able to consistently field a winner. St. Scholastica added additional road trips this year after the Metrodome was closed and later demolished.
“We’re still on pace to play almost all 40 games we scheduled,” Kemp said, “but it’s required us to be on a bus for well over 8,000 miles.”
The Saints suffered their first Upper Midwest Athletic Conference loss in three seasons but are still overwhelming favorites to win an 18th straight UMAC championship. They’ve made nine consecutive NCAA Division III tournaments.
Sophomore Tyler Duex, a transfer from UWS who Kemp called one of the hardest workers he’s ever coached, leads St. Scholastica with a .463 batting average, 10 doubles and 24 RBIs. Freshman Trevor Bernsdorf is batting .447 with six doubles, 20 runs and 20 RBIs. Bernsdorf, a former Floodwood standout, was at Doane (Neb.) College in August before enrolling at St. Scholastica.
Junior Andy Davis and sophomore Jordan Risse are the top starting pitchers for the Saints (18-10, 10-1), while Thomas Rogers (0.92 ERA) has been nearly unhittable out of the bullpen. Risse is also one of the team’s top hitters.
UMD WEATHERS STORM Minnesota Duluth coach Bob Rients was asked when the Bulldogs hoped to play their first home game.
Rients laughed, and laughed and laughed some more. At least he has a sense of humor.
UMD hoped to open its home season this weekend, but that will be a challenge with rain and cold in the forecast. The Bulldogs could have back-to-back seasons without a home game.
“It’s going to be extremely hard to pull it off,” Rients said. “The weather could put us back to square one.”
Rients knows his team needs to focus on things it can control, and lately, the Bulldogs have been doing just that during a seven-game winning streak. UMD needs to keep playing well to qualify for the eight-team Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament May 7-10 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“It’ll probably come down to the last game of the regular season to see who gets in,” Rients said. “We feel good about what’s going on right now. We’re just doing everything a little better.”
UMD (14-19, 10-13) had a strong second half last season, something Rients hoped would carry over to this year.
“It just took us a little longer to find our identity than I expected,” Rients said.
UMD sophomore Bo Hellquist (3-4, 3.27 ERA) leads a deep pitching staff, while sophomore first baseman Alex Wojciechowski, who became the first NSIC player to be named player and freshman of the year in 2013, is batting .322 with a team-high eight doubles and 21 RBIs.
Junior catcher Beau Goff (.324) and senior outfielder Cody Aasen (.322) lead the team in batting average. Freshman Skyler Wenninger has been excellent defensively and bats leadoff. Sophomore Kyle Comer and freshman Brian Pierce split time at shortstop, while senior Kellen McCoshen and freshman Matt Vogt have played well in the outfield. Freshman Grant Farley has been solid on the mound and at the plate.
With only four seniors, the Bulldogs have shown the inconsistency of a young team.
“We’re young and our performance, at times, has been indicative of that,” Rients said. “But at the same time, it’s really encouraging that once again we’re finishing strong.”