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Freshman off to strong start

Dakota Wesleyan University’s Ben Spitznagel throws the ball to first base in a game against the University of Jamestown Wednesday at Cadwell Park in Mitchell. (Nick McCutcheon/Republic)

Dakota Wesleyan University baseball coach Steve Gust wasn’t quite sure how his team was going to fill the void left at shortstop by Great Plains Athletic Conference player of the year Michael Lukkason.

But Gust and the Tigers seem to have found an answer with freshman shortstop Ben Spitznagel. The Cincinatti, Ohio native has been a stalwart in the DWU lineup, batting .404, while stealing 18 bases through 30 games in 2014.

“I thought he could be great, but I thought it would take a longer than it has,” Gust said. “I thought there would be a longer learning curve. What has surprised us most is his defense. He struggled in the fall with his defense a little bit, but he has worked really hard on it.”

Spitznagel has the advantage of learning from his predecessor Lukkason. The former Tiger shortstop was an honorable mention All-American last season after hitting .401 with 13 doubles and five home runs. He is currrently a graduate assistant with the DWU baseball team.

“I was definitely nervous to take over for Michael,” Spitznagel said. “I knew I had some big shoes to fill. But he has mentored me. It helps that he is still around and he continues to mentor me, so I have someone to look up too.”

The freshman standout said he expected to have a good season, but he did not expect it to be this good.

The left-handed hitting shortstop has been relatively successful against left-handed and right-handed pitchers. He is hitting .364 against lefties and .423 against righties. He is also hitting .391 with runners in scoring position, all from the leadoff spot, where he takes pride in being the Tigers’ table setter.

Spitznagel is part of a DWU lineup that is hitting .310 as a team and features catcher Ben Ladner, who has a.384 batting average with 11 doubles, and utility player Sam Schumacher, who is hitting .333 with nine doubles.

“I have pretty much been a leadoff hitter my whole life,” Spitznagel said. “I like leading the team and getting them started and putting some energy in the lineup. I don’t think I thought I would be having this good a season, but I worked my butt off and I guess hard work pays off.”

Spitznagel signed with DWU in January 2013 after visiting the campus with his family. At that time, Gust beamed over the signing of the middle infielder, saying that he expected him to challenge for playing time right away. Spitznagel has not disappointed Gust, earning a spot in the starting lineup for the 16-16 Tigers.

Spitznagel chose Wesleyan over Division I Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind., Division II Carson-Newman in Jefferson City, Tenn.and Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, because he felt more comfortable.

“We saw him on a recruiting service and he came on a visit and he loved DWU,” Gust said. “We loved him and by the time he left here. we had him signed.”