Like most sports teams in the area, the Rapid City Post 22 American Legion baseball squad has spent most of its time this spring indoors.
Finally, this was a good week for the Hardhats, capped off Friday by an intra-squad scrimmage and Saturday by sprucing up historic Floyd Fitzgerald Stadium.
It was baseball weather.
They need more of the sun-splashed weather in the next couple of weeks as they get ready for the 2019 opener and eventually in defense of their state title, the 42nd in program history.
Post 22 opens the season May 1 with a doubleheader at Gillette, Wyo. They’ll also be in Cheyenne, Wyo., Spearfish and Billings, Mont., for nine total games before opening its home season May 15 against Gillette.
“We’ve been limited with the weather. We had our first scrimmage, and we had some positive things and a whole lot of things we need to work on. But it was nice to get out and knock some of the rust off,” Post 22 head coach Kelvin Torve said Saturday.
Maybe the biggest question mark for the Hardhats, 57-12 last season, is how will they replace shortstop Cooper Bowman, center fielder Connor King and right fielder Zach Sumption, who all are now playing college baseball. The three combined to hit .372 with 211 hits, 13 home runs and 165 runs batted in.
In the history of Post 22, the old sports cliché of not rebuilding, but reloading, usually comes in place. It will have to do that again this season in this competitive state and region play.
“We lost some key components from our team last year, but we have a lot of guys working hard, looking pretty good for the start of the season,” first baseman/designated hitter Jace Caldwell said.
Torve, in his second year at the helm and a former Hardhat and Major Leaguer, said their seniors and juniors are quality individuals and will do what they have to do to keep the program going in the right direction.
“I believe in them, they believe in the program and the process,” he said. “I’m excited about the season. How good we are going to be? I don’t know. But I really love these guys and I look forward to coaching them and seeing what we can do this summer.”
One of the new leaders, third baseman Matthew Hegre, was one of those younger players a couple of years ago himself.
“We just have to lead and show the younger kids how to do it, how we did it last year. Just do it as Post 22 Hardhats always do,” Hegre said.
Catcher Ryan Schmidt said the most important thing for them this season, and what pushed them last year, was staying together as a team.
“We bonded last year and we're bonding this year, and we have to be a team,” Schmidt said. “Last year and this year we’re all brothers. We’re all good friends and we love baseball.”
The Hardhats will miss the offense from Bowman, King and Sumption, but have some firepower returning. Caldwell hit .390 with five home runs and 67 RBI, followed by Schmidt at .323, Hegre at .311 with five home runs and 46 RBI, left fielder Alex Weaver at .317 and infielder Mason Messinger at .306
“We just want to get guys on to score them. I need to hit and do my job. They’ll do their job in front of me and behind me,” Caldwell said. “We haven’t been on the field much and seen much live pitching, but once we see some live pitching, we’ll get more in the swing of things.”
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Torve indicated Messinger, who started last season at second base, and Colton Hartford will battle for the shortstop position, while Drew Messer, Bransen Kuehl, Bridger Nesbit, Daniel Vigoren and Blake Weaver will compete for the other two outfield positions.
“We have a number of candidates, and now we have two months to figure out who the final 18 are going to be,” Torve said of their postseason roster. “This year we will have some decisions to make. There will be a lot of competition for positions on that final roster.”
Torve said all of the players have an opportunity because there are a lot of games to play between the three teams. He said that it is going to be fun to watch, and that is what this program is all about.
He added the internal competition within the program makes everyone better.
“You can’t miss a weight-training workout because there are other guys who are playing your position are doing it,” Torve said. “That internal competition drives everyone, and in turn, drives the program. It is a fun place to be part of, and it was that way, way back when I played. It’s a function of, ‘You will get your opportunity, now you have to take advantage of it.’”
There’s no doubt the strength of the team should be on the pitching mound. Of the team’s 69 starts last season, Post 22 pitchers return with 53 of those starts.
Dylan Richey returns after an 8-2 (3.33 ERA) season, while Tad Scherbenske was 8-0, mostly in relief. Zach Whitesell was also 8-0 with a 2.30 ERA, while Zach Chiolis was 7-1 and 2.34. Chiolis, however, has some arm issues and is at least a month away from returning.
Messer was also 5-0 and 4.30.
“We have a really good pitching staff this year,” Messer said. “With the guys we lost, the question is more on the offensive side. But the couple chances we have been outside, our hitting has looked good. I think it will come together well.”
Torve also indicated that the Hardhats look to take advantage of the better weather in the next two weeks in preparation for Gillette with two or three more scrimmages. The Rough Riders are currently 14-0 with a lot of their early competition against high school teams.
“We’re going to talk to pitching coach Ryan Klapperich and figure out our rotation,” he said. “That’s where you find where the holes are when you actually play game situations. You find out that, ‘We have to work on this, we’re okay in this area.’ We have 60 guys in the program (three teams), so finding who is going to play will be a challenge, but it is something we have to figure out and get done.”
Schmidt said the anticipation for the season is high.
“We’re excited to get playing again. We have been waiting for the time to get outside. (Friday) we scrimmaged for the first time; we actually played. I think that was the best part,” he said.
Messer said again have some lofty goals.
“We’re looking forward to trying to better our goal last year. Our goal last year was to get to the World Series. It was close, and we want to take it to the next level this year,” he said.
Earning their 43rd state title is goal number one.
“We just want to take the trophy home again,” Hegre said. “Every year that is our drive, winning the state tournament, and keep going for the regional, and hopefully the World Series.”