Lions look to batting for additional baseball success

Jonah Udstuen takes throw as runner Carson Gerard arrives at second base during chilly-weather preseason workout. The Lions opened the 2019 baseball season on Tuesday of this week at Alden-Conger/Glenville-Emmons. The Lions play at Schaeffer Academy on Friday and at St. Paul versus Wabasha-Kellogg on Saturday. The home opener is on April 23. Photo by S. Lee Epps
By : 
Lee Epps

Baseball expectations are deservedly high for Spring Grove, which returns the entire pitching staff and six of eight position starters from last spring when the Lions (10-5) posted the most wins since coach Chris Strinmoen repeated as team Most Valuable Player 22 years ago when the Lions went 13-6 in 1996. 

After six seasons of sharing with Caledonia (2010-2015), the Grove guys enter their fourth season (all under Strinmoen) back as a stand-alone program with plenty of experience on the diamond and flushed with state tournament success in both football and basketball.

"I'm excited to have the entire pitching staff back again this year," said Strinmoen. "This should be one of our strengths. We return seven of our nine starters, so I anticipate another good year in the field defensively as well. It will come down to how well we can hit the ball and generate offense."

One .300 hitter graduated, but three return. The Lions stole 46 bases, averaging more than three thefts per game. With all-conference Carter Bratland at catcher most of the time, opposing runners attempted only 15 steals all year.

All three all-conference players are back; senior Alex Folz and Bratland (a junior) have both been All-SEC for the only two seasons that Lions have been eligible for conference honors. 

They were joined last spring by then junior, now senior shortstop Nic Peterson,who was team MVP after leading the Lions in batting average (.368) and runs batted in (13). He ranked second in runs scored ((14) and stolen bases (8).

Folz (2 pitching wins, 3 losses) despite drawing starts against the toughest competition, had last years best ERA of 1.82 while striking out 46 and walking 22 during 34.2 innings. 

Folz was narrowly edged out for the batting title at .364 while leading the Lions in slugging percentage (.568), stolen bases (10) and runs scored (19) while sharing the lead in extra-base hits (6).

Bratland, the starting catcher, had the second-most innings on the mound (22.2), striking out 38 and walking only 12 with an ERA of 2.78. He batted .316 with 10 RBIs and led the team in reaching base with walks (12.) 

Bratlandwas the lone Lion in the starting lineup to walk more often than strike out and led the team with a .500 on-base percentage.

JuniorChandler Bergrudpitched 18.1 innings, fanning 28 batters and walking only 10 with an ERA of 4.96.

Last year, with Bratland either behind the plate or on the mound, Bergrud and Folz were often part of a pitcher-catcher-third base rotation. This year, it could be a pitcher-catcher-outfield combination, since one graduating senior played center field. 

Senior three-year letter winner Noah Eltonplayed right field and shared the team lead with six extra-base hits. The youngest starter was in left field where now sophomore Isaac Griffinearned a starting spot as a freshman in 2018.

Back to again anchor the infield are three-year letter winner Peterson at shortstop and junior Payton Leahyat second base.  Both are also pitching possibilities.

Junior two-year letter winner Kyle Hagen, who last spring was the designated hitter and back-up first baseman, is the leading candidate to start at that corner of the infield.

If Folz and Bergrud do alternate in the outfield, expect junior letter winner Caleb Nerstadto move into the starting lineup at third base. As a courtesy runner in 2018, he ranked third in runs scored (11).  He also fashioned a 2-0 record during eight innings of relief on the mound.

Very versatile sophomore Caden Grindecould contribute everywhere - the outfield, the infield, behind the plate and on the pitching mound.

Others returning are outfielders senior Gabe Prahl, junior Alan Michelsand sophomore Jakob Myrah.  

FreshmanJonah Udstuenis a promising infielder; classmate Carson Gerardis a possibility in either the infield or outfield.

Three seniors out for the first time are Ethan Matzke, Kai Bjerkeand Takoda Boyd.

There is considerable athleticism among the 13 candidates on the junior high roster, coached again by Blaine Storlie.


Spring Grove has not won a conference crown since a co-championship in 1989. But last year's Lions remained in the conference race until the last home date with Randolph. 

The Rockets remained undefeated and would win their fifth straight conference crown and fourth SEC title in their four years of membership. The Lions, with a 9-3 league mark, were runners-up just ahead of Lyle/Pacelli, which went on to win a sub-section championship. 

Randolph had no seniors, and L/P was also a young team. But experienced Spring Grove should figure into a three-team struggle for SEC supremacy. 

"We definitely want to compete for a conference title again this year," said Strinmoen. 

Grand Meadow/LeRoy-Ostrander/Kingsland joins the SEC to make it an eight-team league, the most members since 2002.

The playoffs

"We are hoping to earn another home playoff game," added Strinmoen. "One of our big goals is to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. If we can do that, I think we can make a run in the section tournament." 

There has not been a postseason baseball title for Spring Grove since 1979. The Lions finally hosted a sub-section game last year. Even though play-off seeds have improved from No. 7 to No. 6 and to No. 4, the boys have dropped first round postseason decisions in each season since reviving stand-alone status.

The Lions' pitching depth should be a plus in the playoffs. But double elimination does not begin until the second round. So regardless of the seed, Strinmoen says you have to beat a team's best pitcher in the opening round in order to stay alive. 

Rushford-Peterson won both sub-section and Section 1A to advance to state last spring. Randolph is in Section 4A for the playoffs.

This week and next

The boys opened with a conference game at Alden-Conger/Glenville-Emmons on Tuesday of this week before going to Rochester to face Schaeffer Academy on Friday, April 5.

The Lions play in St. Paul on Saturday against perennial powerhouse Wabasha-Kellogg. The first pitch is at 1 p.m. at CHS Field, home of the St. Paul Saints.