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College baseball: Saints' Neutzling thriving in right field

St. Scholastica baseball coach Corey Kemp approached shortstop Steven Neutzling early in fall practice with an idea that didn't come out of left field.

Photo courtesy of St. Scholastica Saints junior Steven Neutzling leads the team in batting average, home runs and a host of other categories this season.
Saints junior Steven Neutzling leads the team in batting average, home runs and a host of other categories this season. Photo courtesy of St. Scholastica

St. Scholastica baseball coach Corey Kemp approached shortstop Steven Neutzling early in fall practice with an idea that didn't come out of left field.

The Saints' coaching staff had been mulling it over for a while, then finally decided it would be better if Neutzling moved from his customary shortstop position to right field, where he could concentrate more on hitting and less on fielding.

The results have been hard to argue with.

Neutzling, a 6-foot-1 junior, leads the Saints (17-6 overall, 6-0 UMAC) in most offensive categories, including batting average (.372), home runs (six), doubles (11) and RBIs (29). Of his team-leading 35 hits, more than half (19) have gone for extra bases.

"These aren't like singles. These are balls that are getting smashed off walls and out of ballparks," Kemp said. "Every time that kid comes to the plate, people believe that he is going to absolutely find the barrel and hit a baseball hard. He's earned that."

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Neutzling (pronounced "Nights-ling"), a 2014 St. Cloud Cathedral graduate, started at shortstop his first two years for the Saints and had 36 errors. While he was strong at the plate, batting .348 as a freshman and .373 last spring, he didn't put up the same power numbers as this year. After moving to right field, he only has one error and a .984 fielding percentage.

"If you make a mistake defensively, that can carry over to your at-bats," Kemp said. "We put him out in right field knowing that could help clear his mind a little bit and just let him worry about swinging the bat and chasing down fly balls instead of grinding it out playing shortstop every day. I'm very happy he's being rewarded."

For Kemp, it's simple. He wants his best players in the lineup every day. St. Scholastica already had an excellent infielder in Tyler Duex, so moving Neutzling to the outfield freed up a spot.

There aren't any easy outs in the Saints' lineup.

Freshman Joey Zwak of Duluth East is batting .319 and has been hitting leadoff lately, followed by two of the Saints' seven seniors, Duex (.355) and third baseman Brian Minks (.363). Junior Drew Colvard (.324) and sophomores Tim Munn (.306) and Conor Wollenzien (.303) have helped the Saints bat .320 with 65 doubles, nine triples and 19 home runs.

"I'm not the only one knocking the cover off the ball. Guys are doing some things offensively we haven't seen," Neutzling said. "One through nine in our lineup, we've got guys who are capable of doing everything on the offensive side of the ball."

Neutzling credited assistant coach Brandon Swartz with bringing new techniques and philosophies into the offensive fold this season.

On the mound, junior Grant Rindal of Superior has enjoyed a breakout season while leading a pitching rotation that includes Ben Christofferson, Jacob Dzubay and Martin Alcoverde. Rindal is 3-0 with a 1.75 ERA while logging a team-high 36 innings. Junior Joe Gonrowski has been lights out from the bullpen, going 3-0 with a save while not allowing an earned run in 20 2/3 innings.

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"Guys worked hard in the offseason, and it's shown," Neutzling said.

Since starting 1-4, St. Scholastica has gone 16-2 against a schedule that was ranked fourth toughest in NCAA Division III prior to conference play.

Among those games was a split with then-No. 4 Wisconsin-Whitewater and sweeps of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and No. 11 Wisconsin-La Crosse.

"It's pretty rare when you go 5-1 against the three best teams in the WIAC," Kemp said. "We haven't done that in quite some time, if ever."

Winning, of course, makes change easier to accept.

Neutzling, having played shortstop since he was young, undoubtedly had to swallow some pride moving to right field, but it was made easier by a team-first attitude.

"Whatever was best for the team is what I wanted to do, so I gave it a go," Neutzling said. "It's been a smooth transition. I found a home in right field."

'Dogs have new look

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Expectations were tempered at Minnesota Duluth after a record-setting year in which the Bulldogs won the NSIC regular-season title and had the national player of the year in Alex Wojciechowski.

No longer can UMD simply outslug opponents. The Bulldogs have had to manufacture runs this spring with a little more "small ball," utilizing bunts and the like.

"You definitely have to manage a different way," UMD coach Bob Rients said.

The Bulldogs' cupboard certainly isn't bare, with Alex's younger brother, Tyler Wojciechowski, Marco Lucarelli and Grant Farley returning to a squad that is batting .311 this spring.

Lucarelli leads the Bulldogs (16-16 overall, 11-9 NSIC) with a .352 batting average, while freshmen Drew Stewart (.351) and Chase Thomas (.342) have had an immediate impact. Senior Kyle Hoffman (.349) saved his best for last, while NCAA Division I transfers Tyler Midas (North Dakota) and Colin Baumgard (North Dakota State) have been key additions.

Senior Kevin Stocke of Hermantown, junior Marcus Frederickson and sophomore Ryan Cunningham have led a pitching staff that was inconsistent early notch a 2.78 ERA in conference play.

'Jackets right ship

Wisconsin-Superior (7-15 overall, 3-1 UMAC) stumbled out of the blocks this spring but has won five of its past six games.

Coach Frank Pufall is in his first year at UWS after earning high marks in two seasons as an assistant at UMD, where the Bulldogs went 74-32 and set a school record with 39 wins last spring.

The Yellowjackets can hit, batting .310 as a team, but their 7.81 ERA won't win many games.

Senior Chad Patko, a former Hayward Hurricane, is one of the leaders offensively, batting .324 with a team-leading 22 hits and 18 RBIs, while senior Trevor Stone leads on the mound with a 2-1 record and 2.57 ERA.

Photo courtesy of St. Scholastica St. Scholastica's Steven Neutzling has made a home in right field after struggling at times while playing shortstop. The junior leads the Saints in hitting.
St. Scholastica's Steven Neutzling has made a home in right field after struggling at times while playing shortstop. The junior leads the Saints in hitting. Photo courtesy of St. Scholastica

Related Topics: BASEBALL
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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