FORT DODGE, Iowa -- Drew DeMers wanted to try something new this summer, fulfilling a dream in the process.
The Dakota Wesleyan University left fielder and Winner native agreed to play for the Fort Dodge Gypsum Miners, a first-year team in the Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League. DeMers played for the Winner/Colome amateur baseball team last summer.
Located in Fort Dodge, Iowa, the Gypsum Miners are part of the six-team wood-bat league, which has five teams from Iowa and one in Albert Lea, Minnesota. While the league is mostly comprised of NAIA and junior college players, it does have a couple of Division-I athletes, too.
“It’s something I thought I should try at least once,” DeMers said. “… There’s some kids in our league that are probably going to get drafted or have already gotten drafted before. The level of pitching I see is probably the same as NAIA, so that’s good to see the same type of pitching all year around.”
Connecting Fort Dodge and DeMers did involve some luck, though. Gypsum Miners coach Connor McLeod exchanged business cards four years prior with the DWU coaching staff while coaching the Detroit Lakes, Minnesota Legion baseball team at the Gopher Classic.
Now an assistant coach at Iowa Central Community College, he came across it when he was searching for players prior to DeMers’ breakout sophomore campaign. He didn’t know anything about the right-handed batter other than he fit the type of player he was searching for -- a sophomore who saw limited playing time as a freshman.
DeMers jumped at the opportunity, agreeing to play for the Gypsum Miners before his sophomore season, which saw his .358 batting average rank sixth in the Great Plains Athletic Conference.
“All of a sudden I look at their stats when their season starts -- they’re like 30 games in -- and Drew’s hitting like .360,” McLeod said. “I was like, ‘Dang, that’s a pretty good find.’ ”
DeMers said the distance doesn’t bother him, especially since his family tries to make the five-and-a-half hour drive for his weekend games.
The Gypsum Miners also provide players with a host family, so he doesn’t have to pay rent. Rather, he spends his time doing community work, such as with Habitat for Humanity on Monday, and helping host youth baseball clinics.
“We do a lot of community service,” said DeMers, who will be a junior next year. “That’s kind of what we do when we’re not playing.”
McLeod emphasized the development aspect of the league in the team’s first practice, saying, “If you develop as a player usually winning takes care of itself.” Despite recording 54 hits in 46 games last season, DeMers is still trying to improve as a hitter.
The smaller sweet spot on wood bats forces him to make better contact instead of relying on hits when he gets jammed or hits it off the end of the bat. He’s also seeing college pitching -- compared to other college athletes returning to Legion baseball or playing amateur -- which he says reaches 89-90 mph regularly.
Mechanically, McLeod has tried to help DeMers’ lower-half timing by developing a leg kick to get his swing starting deeper and lasting longer in the zone.
“A lot of his swings started with his chest,” McLeod said. “That causes some slow bat stuff, his hands would sneak out in front quite a bit. … (He’s) staying in his legs when he swings, so he’s not finishing so high. Trying to start his swing a little bit deeper in the zone.”
The Gypsum Miners only practice twice per week at most during the team’s 40-game schedule, which runs through July, but DeMers always shows up to optional batting practices.
He has also taken advantage of Iowa Central’s facilities, such as HitTrax, which McLeod describes as, “a golf simulator for baseball players.” It measures batters’ exit velocity, launch angle and whether it would have been a hit.
“It’s cool to see that improve gradually as the season goes on,” DeMers said. “It also helps you see what you’re doing wrong or helps you see the improvements that your adjustments are benefiting from.”
The improvements have shown in games. He had two doubles and a sacrifice fly against the defending champion Albert Lea Lakers last weekend.
“You can tell people in the community are really excited about the team here,” DeMers said. “... It’s a pretty cool experience. I recommend anyone who plays college baseball to try it at least once.”