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SAUNDERS: Seniors provide necessary spark

When a baseball program is successful, seniors are usually the cornerstone.

This summer, the Mitchell Post 18 Legion baseball has been no different.

In 51 games, all five members of the senior class have played vital roles for the squad.

“At the state tournament, the bottom line is our older guys have to step up,” Mitchell baseball coach Luke Norden said. “We are relying on those guys, and their backs have to be sore when the weekend is over, because we need them to carry most of the weight for us.”

Every senior class is important, yet Norden especially respects these seniors for the time and effort they have put in the past few years.

“This is one of the larger classes that we have had,” the sixth-year head coach said. “That means a little more just for the fact that we have a larger number of guys who have been with the program for a long period of time. ... That is our goal for the program and it’s a tribute to these guys.”

The group — Kirby Fuerst, Jared and Josh Schmidt, Michael Sadler and Evan Mastel — has set records and reached new heights in its senior season with Mitchell baseball.

One of the records this team owns is total wins in a season, beating last year’s record at 34. The feat was topped during the Region 2A tournament and the team has now amassed 38 wins. That new total is the most of any Mitchell team since records started being compiled for the Legion teams in 2008.

This year’s senior group also won the Region 2A title for the first time en route to booking a trip to the Class A Legion baseball tournament. The group also qualified to play in the Class A high school state tournament in the spring season.

Take one look at the stat sheet and the presence of the five seniors is felt. Jared Schmidt leads the team in batting average with a .406 mark. Josh Schmidt leads the team in hits (62), doubles (13), total bases (77) and RBIs (50). Fuerst is hitting .321 with a team leading .512 slugging percentage and has accumulated five wins on the mound.

Mastel has a .314 batting average and is tied for a team-best on-base percentage at .484, while Sadler has a 3.00 earned run average, five wins and a team leading 60.1 innings pitched. He is also hitting .311 in his final season.

“Being seniors, it was our ultimate goal to get to the state tournament and win,” Mastel said. “This is the first time we have been to a Legion state tournament and it is absolutely something we have been working toward. All of us are really close friends and we hang out outside of baseball, and that has made us a lot closer.”

One player who is not a member of the senior class but is an elder statesman is Lakin Neugebauer. He graduated in 2012 but was able to return for a final season because he falls under the age limit to play an additional season. Neugebauer attended South Dakota State University last year and is preparing to play baseball for Dakota Wesleyan University this year.

The outfielder leads Post 18 in stolen bases with 24, which is tied for the team record Sean DeVries set in 2009. Neugebauer also shares the team lead in on-base percentage (.484) and has sole possession of the team lead in walks with 41.

He has provided the Mitchell lineup with a jolt of experience, speed and solid outfield defense this summer.

In addition to the five seniors and one super senior, Norden said a player who really had an effect on the seniors this year was Aaron Sudbeck. “Suds,” as he is affectionately called by his teammates, is a junior pitcher/outfielder.

Norden said Sudbeck has lightened the mood in the dugout and that has made a world of difference at times.

“The seniors really took on Aaron’s attitude and lightened up a little bit and that has helped us a great deal.” Norden said. “Aaron has done some things for us this year that our team really needed.”

Even if the team doesn’t win a state Legion championship this year, the players should not hang their heads. They have much to celebrate.