Prep baseball: Baseball looks like a job for Northwestern's Kaufman
The senior had a pair of doubles and three RBIs in his first varsity home game Thursday.
IRON RIVER — As Northwestern’s Tanner Kaufman strode to the plate Thursday against Chetek-Weyerhauser and Eminem’s hit “Without Me” played over the speakers.
“Guess who’s back, back again,” the song went. “Shady’s back, tell a friend. Guess who’s back, guess who’s back?”
Kaufman drove the ball into left-center field and drove in a run in his first-inning at-bat, but he wasn’t done. He hit a two-RBI double in the second inning and finished the day 2-for-2 with three RBIs and three runs scored in an 18-5, five-inning win. In his four at-bats over four innings, the Bulldogs never put Kaufman out.
In fact, the senior wasn’t exactly “back” for the Tigers, he was playing his first home game at the varsity level. Kaufman played baseball until he was in eighth grade but as high school started, he focused on football.
“I did track because I had college coaches telling me I was too slow to play football, so I decided that was what I needed to focus on,” Kaufman said. “Then I made my decision to play at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and I figured why not have fun and take it a little easier.”
Northwestern coach Ryan Teal said Kaufman “didn’t skip a beat” coming back to the sport after four years, but he wasn’t sure how four years away would affect the senior.
“I was like this is high school pitching, you’re going to see curveballs, change-ups and off-speed stuff,” Teal said. “I wasn’t quite sure after him not seeing the ball for all these years, how he was going to react to it. But from the beginning of the season until now, he’s doing a great job seeing the ball, swinging the bat on the ball. He’s a strong kid, he can hit gaps and he’s just a good leader — he’s a good guy to have in the dugout.”
Teal also said Kaufman’s speed in the outfield has been a benefit for the Tigers as well, this season.
Kaufman, who was recently named a WIAA scholar-athlete, said patience on the part of his coaches and teammates are part of the reason he’s been able to step back in as quickly as he could.
“I’m just really appreciative of Mr. Teal being patient and helping me along a little bit,” Kaufman said. “So him being patient and my friends being patient — and knowing it’s going to come along eventually, I just have to remember a few things from four years ago — really went a long way.”
Luke Sedin, a close friend and football teammate, said the pair are “always hanging out” and using the batting cage at Sedin’s house, but little actual “patience” was required when Kaufman showed up for practice this spring.
“He picks everything up so quickly, he’s such a great athlete to have on our team,” Sedin said. “He’s a great pick up for our outfield because he’s so quick and he’s got a great arm for being off for four years.”
It’s not just Kaufman with the hot bat for the Tigers. Boden Teal had three hits and two RBIs while Cole Lahti had two hits and three RBIs.
“I probably should have used a little more strategy — I thought about bunting and things like that,” Teal said. “But I told them, ‘I have so much confidence in all of you one through nine, I’m just going to let you guys swing away.”
Currently, Northwestern (7-4, 6-2) sits third in the Heart O’ North Conference with losses to Hayward and St. Croix Falls. Against the Saints, the Tigers managed only three hits in 17 at-bats, but Teal thinks they can play with anyone in the conference.
“We always see the opposing team’s best pitcher and we’re usually going to see him for 100 pitches,” Teal said. “We’ve got to learn to hit good pitching a little bit better and when we do that, we’re right up there with the top of the conference.”
Kaufman said stepping back on to a team that has a chance to win every night is exactly what he was looking for when he chose to return.
“It’s just fun and all my best friends are out here and that’s why I came out to do it again,” Kaufman said. “Plus, I love to compete and when I see a team that can win, I’m excited to get out there and compete with them. In eighth grade, we had all those traveling baseball memories, so being able to do it one more time for my senior year is pretty fun.”