While most students spent spring break visiting family or spending time at the beach, the Bulldog baseball team spent their spring break on the baseball diamond — compiling a 7-5 record in a jam-packed week of games.
But their last game of the break may have been their most impressive.
An up-and-down spring trip to Florida preceded a four-game conference split against the University of Sioux Falls, but things may be looking up for the Bulldogs, as an offensive explosion capped off the opening weekend of Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference play with a 21-4 victory over the Cougars.
The usual suspects led the way for UMD in the conference win. Coming off a 2014 season, where he was tabbed as the NSIC Preseason Player of the Year, junior first baseman Alex Wojciechowski drove in two runs on three hits. Along with Wojciechowski, upperclassmen Jimmy Heck and Kyle Comer also had three hits each.
Adding to the offensive effort was second year outfielder and designated hitter Grant Farley. Farley has already had six multi-hit games for the Bulldogs this season; he leads UMD with a .472 batting average and 14 RBIs. Yet head coach Bob Rients is mostly unsurprised by the sophomore’s early success.
“You go into the year expecting all of your guys to perform extremely well,” Rients said. “But I know that Grant Farley has had an awesome start to the year; you can’t deny that he has been very, very good.”
However, Farley is not the only contributing sophomore. Splitting time behind the plate with fellow sophomore Nathan Jack and senior transfer Beau Goff, catcher Marco Lucarelli’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
“Lucarelli has done a nice job of stepping in in the playing time he was given behind the plate,” Rients said. “(He’s) doing a good job there, and also in the batter’s box.”
Lucarelli has tallied seven hits while appearing in eight games for a .467 batting average, and is an example of the depth Rients found during their spring break non-conference games in Florida.
“The guys that may not have seen a lot of playing time performed well when they did, so that’s encouraging to the overall depth of our program,” Rients said. “We know that there will be injuries and different things that pop up that we’re going to need to rely on that depth.”
As important as it was for the Bulldogs to win their RussMatt Central Florida Invitational games, the games served a greater purpose: to prepare for NSIC play, the games that count toward a postseason berth.
“Performance-wise, we were up and down, (but) I saw some good things as far as coming back in games — some mental toughness,” said Rients.
Leaving Florida with a 5-3 record, the Bulldogs struggled — as they did in their opening NSIC matchup — to find as much success in the field as they had at the plate.
“I think when we look at the (University of Sioux Falls) series as a whole, that we gave the opposing team too many opportunities,” Rients said. “We didn’t close the games out that we should have, and we didn’t play great defense. We struggled in the outfield a little bit, we struggled in the infield a little bit, (and) there were times when we didn’t execute pitches.”
Although the offensive output has been stable, the Bulldogs are still working out the kinks in the field. UMD’s six errors in 12 games aren’t anything to sound the alarms about, but Rients hopes his team can find the mental toughness in practice this week that he saw hints of in Florida.
“How we handle our business, how we respond to things not going our way, how we respond to failure, I think those are character elements that we started to talk about as we finished up the weekend in Sioux falls; understanding that we’re our own worst enemies,” Rients said.
The Bulldogs will face Concordia-St. Paul this weekend on the road. Concordia-St. Paul is tied for first place in the NSIC with St. Cloud State (20-0) and Minnesota State (13-1) after the first weekend of conference play. But a four-game sweep of Minnesota-Crookston, who lost all 36 of their conference games in 2014, inflated their overall record to 6-6.
The Bulldogs hope last weekend’s large margin of victory can be a turning point early on, for a ball club hovering around a .500 winning percentage. But where there has been relatively steady offensive support, UMD needs to find their footing on the mound and in the field.
With 34 regular season games left, there is plenty of time to do so. But of course, there is no better time than the present. And presently, the Bulldogs are working to learn from their mistakes, in order to achieve their goals.
“That’s something to learn from and to move forward on,” Rients said.
“(We need) to make sure we have an even greater focus in practice this week, to be able to correct those things that contributed to us not winning every single game, because that’s the expectation. And I believe it’s a realistic expectation.”
BY JIMMY GILLIGAN