Young Cardinals aim at defending SCC

Todd Sukalski returns to the Fairmont baseball dugout with only two seniors on his opening-day roster, but opposing coaches probably will not feel too badly for the Cardinals’ eighth-year mentor.

“We only have two seniors, but they’re pretty good players,” Sukalski said in reference to three-year varsity diamond veterans Luke Becker and Jay Ruen. Add fellow three-year varsity starter in junior right-hander Spencer Chirpich to the returning mix, and Fairmont represents a formidable foe in both the South Central Conference and the Section 3AA Tournament this spring.

Luverne edged Fairmont in a 3-2 edge-of-the-bleacher sectional championship clash a year ago to end Sukalski and his Cardinals’ three-year state run. Ironically, Luverne accounted for two of Fairmont’s three losses out of its 25-game schedule in 2013.

While Sukalski has guided the Cardinals to four consecutive sectional finals, the meticulous mentor also has steered the program to four SCC crowns over the past five seasons, including three in a row prior to Monday’s 5:30 p.m. season-opener against St. Peter at Herb Wolf Field in Fairmont.

Becker, the 2013 Sentinel All-Area co-baseball player of the year, and Chirpich, the 2012 All-Area co-captain, will pack a potent 1-2 pitching punch, with Ruen adding a solid third arm to the rotation.

“The strength of this team is we have five guys who can pitch,” said Sukalski, whose pitching staff registered a miniscule 1.69 ERA a year ago.

Chirpich, a perennial all-section and all-SCC choice, compiled a 5-1 record to complement a scant 1.12 ERA. The hard-throwing ace struck out 34 batters in 31 1/3 innings of work last spring.

Chirpich also proved a .372 hitter at the plate in 2013, scoring 24 runs and driving in 11 behind eight doubles and one triple.

Becker, also a perennial all-conference and all-section selection, posted a 3-0 record and 2.23 ERA while striking out 31 in 31 1/3 innings on the hill.

The switch-hitting Becker topped the Cardinals offensively by drilling the baseball at a .470 clip and crossing the plate 40 times. The future NIACC player also delivered 18 RBIs via a team-best .674 slugging pace.

Meanwhile, the right-handed hurling Ruen also proved a legitimate force on the rubber, producing a 2-0 record and 3.23 ERA behind 12 strikeouts in 13 innings worked.

Junior right-hander Matt Lytle, who proved his mound mettle with stellar outings during the VFW campaign, and sophomore right-hander Clayton Maakestad, another VFW summer standout, round out Sukalski’s potent pitching staff.

Junior Ben Abel will handle the Cardinals’ catching duties this season after two-year varsity signal-caller Mitch Pfingsten exchanged his Easton bats for a set of Callaway golf clubs.

“It’s a loss that we weren’t quite expecting, but we understand his (Pfingsten’s) decision to return to golf this season,” said Sukalski. “We’re grateful for his two years with us.”

Ruen will return to third base, Chirpich will handle the duties at shortstop and Becker will patrol second base when two of the trio are not on the mound. Becker will make the transition to shortstop when Chirpich is pitching, while junior Parker Monsen will slide into the spot at second.

Sukalski anticipates sophomore Tyler Tennyson filling the vacancy at first base, while Lytle will serve as a jack-of-all-trades utility infielder as well as playing some outfield.

Sophomore Jack Waletich will patrol left field and junior Cole Emler will handle duties in center, while Sukalski is leaning toward sophomore Nathan Gillis in right. Junior Nate Johnson also will vie for playing time in the outfield.

“A lot of area teams will be senior-oriented, but we’ll be playing four sophomores to start the season,” said Sukalski. “We’re young this year, but we’ve been young before. If they’re playing for us at the varsity level, we expect them to play well.

“I really think we have a team that can contend in both the conference and the section.”

Sukalski believes the New Ulm Eagles have a strong contingent coming back this season and will be a top rival in both the SCC and Section 3AA postseason tournament, while the Luverne Cardinals also return an outstanding nucleus from last year’s sectional championship roster.

Jerry Brooks returns as the program’s varsity assistant, while Don Waletich and Adam Schmidt return as the B- and C-squad coaches, respectively.