Wildcat baseball returns three top pitchers

Eagan wants to move up after finishing 8th in SSC in 2016

It takes pitching to survive any baseball season. That’s particularly true in the South Suburban Conference this spring, where almost every team in the league has quality on the mound.

Eagan coach Rob Walsh said he believes the Wildcats have the pitching to not just survive, but improve on last year’s 7-15 record. They’ll rely heavily on seniors Sam Schaefer and Jack Husemann and junior Dane Miller, three pitchers who were honorable mention all-conference in 2016.

Moving up in the South Suburban – Eagan was eighth in the league last year – will require good pitching and improved offense. The Wildcats’ bats went silent at times last season, including the Class 4A, Section 3 playoffs, where they scored just four runs in two games, both losses.

Eagan had a week of practice and scrimmages in Florida during spring break at the end of March and scrimmaged a couple of Minnesota teams last week. “Our pitching was very good and we played a lot of solid defense,” Walsh said.

The South Suburban is expected to have several teams in the Class 4A rankings, including Burnsville and Lakeville North, two of the eight teams in last year’s state large-school tournament. Burnsville, North and Eastview shared the conference championship last season; each returns varsity-tested pitching.

“We’ll need to be able to make contact, move runners and capitalize on the scoring opportunities we get because there are a lot of games in our conference that could be low-scoring,” Walsh said.

As many as nine pitchers could see time on the mound during the varsity season, and “most of them play other positions when they’re not pitching,” the coach said.

Husemann will play first base when not on the mound. Miller and Kaden Gage are middle infielders as well as pitchers. Senior Sam Lloyd, juniors Justin Fleming and A.J. Battaglia, and sophomore Matthew Bergom also are likely to pitch.

The Wildcats’ infield appears settled with Husemann and Fleming at the corners, and Miller and Gage in the middle. By May 1, they also might get back Gus Kluender, a starting infielder last season who has been recovering from a knee injury suffered during football season last fall.

Junior Drew Grunklee is in his second season as Eagan’s starting catcher. Tommy Schlitz, another junior, also catches.

Seniors Jack Galles, Cam Shepherd and Jake Wilcox are returning outfielders, and junior Cole Peplinski also can play outfield.

Eagan’s defensive lineup could be in flux depending on who’s pitching, but Walsh said that’s nothing unusual in high school baseball. The week in Florida helped prepare the Wildcats for the possibility of ever-changing lineups. “We were able to give our players reps at several different positions,” the coach said.

The Wildcats are 0-2 after losing to Prior Lake (2-1) and Rosemount (7-1) on Tuesday and Wednesday. They go to Farmington at 4:30 p.m. Thursday and are home against Lakeville North at 4:30 p.m. Monday, April 17. Eagan also faces Burnsville at home later next week.

That’s a tough stretch of games in the early part of the season, but Walsh said it’s a fact of life in the South Suburban. “There are a lot of good teams in our conference,” he said.