Ryan Levendoski begins his third season as field manager of the Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers on Wednesday with what he believes is the best team during his tenure.
The University of Wisconsin-Stout assistant coach, whose Lunkers open at home Wednesday against the Alexandria Beetles, is also encouraged by the fact that seven players return from last year.
“I think as far as overall versatility and athleticism, it’s our best team,” Levendoski said. “It’s a matter of staying healthy. Last year we didn’t have a very good first half (14-21) and we had a pretty good second half (18-15). Injuries ate us up.
“One of our main goals was to get dual guys who can pitch and play a position or who can play multiple positions so in case someone gets hurt we can move on.”
Levendoski was hoping all-star catcher Chadd Krist (California-Berkeley) and pitcher Ray Black (Pittsburgh) would return but they’re either playing elsewhere or may be drafted. Pitcher Kyle Teague (Valdosta State) has been shut down with a possible shoulder injury.
Levendoski is confident he has capable replacements.
“We definitely have some players who have potential to play some pro ball,” Levendoski said. “Hopefully we’ve talked to enough coaches and scouts to know what we're getting.”
Lunkers scheduled to return include pitcher Charlie Henderson (Regis University), pitcher Joe Willman (Northern Colorado), pitcher Matt Florer (Loyola Marymount), outfielder Matt Hillsinger (Radford University), first baseman-outfielder Ryan Abrahamson (Minnesota), infielder Tommy Reyes (Cal-Irvine) and outfielder Vince Bruno (Cal-Berkeley).
“It’s good to have some players back to help with day to day things, like making sure guys are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Levendoski said. “I understand what all of them can do. They’re all very good players, very good character guys.”
Reyes hit .257 with 33 runs, 22 RBIs and 36 walks. Hillsinger, Hillsinger is another possible draft pick, hit .278 with 27 runs, 13 RBIs, 21 walks and 25 steals. Bruno batted .262 with 26 runs, nine doubles, a team-high 32 RBIs and 25 walks. Abrahamson hit .155 in 39 games with eight RBIs.
Willman appeared in five games, throwing 18.1 innings, with a 2-0 record and 4.42 ERA. Florer pitched 20 innings with an 0-3 mark and 3.15 ERA. Henderson threw 72.2 innings with a 3-3 record and 3.22 ERA.
“Reyes was one of the league’s Gold Glove fielders, Hillsinger was one of the top guys in stolen bases,” Levendoski said. “The Florer kid pitched only six games, then got hurt. I think he has a little chip on his shoulder to show he can play and hopefully give us a chance to win.
“Abrahamson was drafted by the Twins so he has a lot of potential. We’re hoping some of that potential translates to success on the field.”
Abrahamson is one of five players on the roster with Minnesota connections. Former Brainerd High School standout Kyle Crocker, who red-shirted at the University of Minnesota this spring, will start initially at second or third base.
Minnesota infielder-catcher Dan Olinger used to live in Baxter. Derek Hansen of Fergus Falls plays for Augustana. And, Phil Imholte of St. Cloud played at St. Cloud State.
“When we found out we're probably going to lose Krist to the draft, Olinger came across as a guy who can be a third catcher, play infield and is a pretty good left-handed stick,” Levendoski said. “(Minnesota assistant coach (Rob) Fornasiere said he’s probably one of the best players they had yet to place. He said we would be out of our mind not to take him.”
Levendoski anticipates about seven Lunkers will be late because they’re playing in postseason college tournaments. The group includes pitcher Chase Webb (Creighton), infielder Nick Hamilton (Kent State), junior college infielder Christian Stringer (Navarro College), Reyes, infielder Paul Toboni (California) and Bruno. Infielder Andrew Letourneau of Cal State-Bakersfield will be late because school doesn’t finish until June 10.
Levendoski expects the top newcomers include outfielder Casey Roche (Pittsburgh) and catcher Wade Wass of Meridian Community College (Miss.)
“Roche could be a freshman All-America,” Levendoski said. “He’s an outfielder and right-hand pitcher. He might be one of the kids we can count on and probably could be one of the better players in the league if he performs like he has in college.
“Wass is a kid with tremendous upside. Alabama and Ole Miss are hoping he transfers there. He’s got some very good tools, he’s a very good player. We’re hoping he steps in right away and has success with us.”