2011 Spring Preview: A team effort for Ligtenberg, Park baseball program
Like Ringo Starr, Kerry Ligtenberg is getting by with a little help from his friends.
In his first year as head coach, Ligtenberg -- a former Major League closer and 1989 Park graduate -- has called for some assistance from other former Park greats.
In addition to naming longtime Park baseball coaches John McGowan, Tim Kiemel, Jr. and Tim Kiemel, Sr. as assistant varsity coaches, Ligtenberg brought in former Park standouts Luke Appert and Joe Anthonsen, along with Minnesota Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame member Bill Kroschel to give him a hand this spring as volunteers.
Ligtenberg said with his limited coaching experience, it's been nice to have people to go to. He also said he's talked to Reid Tschumperlin and Forest Lake head coach Brian Raabe, who played at the University of Minnesota and two seasons for the Minnesota Twins.
"I just tried to be prepared," Ligtenberg said. "I don't know everything, especially about hitting and fielding. I know more about pitching and feel comfortable talking about that. With Joey and Luke and the Kiemels, they know much more about hitting, so I let those guys talk to the hitters."
Appert was a two-time All-State player for Park. He also played baseball for the University of Minnesota, where he earned All-American status and was twice named Big Ten Player of the Year. He was drafted by the Oakland A's and named Player of the Decade for the Gophers in 2010.
Anthonsen, 28, currently plays for the Sioux Falls Pheasants of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball -- the St. Paul Saints' league. A middle infielder, Anthonsen hit .327 last season with 13 steals, 81 runs scored and 34 RBI for Sioux Falls and has a .306 career average in the minors, with 550 hits in 463 games.
Kroschel was the head baseball coach at Park for 24 years, winning 404 games. A 1966 Park graduate, Kroschel played baseball for the legendary Granville "Granny" Smith before going to Winona State and playing ball for the Warriors, then served as Smith's assistant coach for four seasons before taking over for him at Park.
Sixty-six former players played college baseball and five played professional baseball -- including Ligtenberg.
Ligtenberg, 39, was a three-time letter-winner in baseball at Park under Kroschel.
After Park, Ligtenberg went on to be named an All-Big Ten performer at the University of Minnesota, and in 1998 he became the first baseball player from Park to reach the major leagues. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting as a relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves and also appeared in the World Series for Atlanta.
Ligtenberg had his best pro season in 1998, when he saved 30 games for the Braves, posting a 2.71 ERA and striking out 79 batters in 73 innings pitched, helping Atlanta reach the NLCS. That year he was fourth in Rookie of the Year voting and finished off games for the likes of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
Appert, Ligtenberg and Kroschel are all members of Park's Hall of Fame.
"I think the kids appreciate having an opportunity to talk to guys that played at a higher level -- a lot of teams don't have that," Ligtenberg said. "We want it to be fun, because it's supposed to be fun, but we want them to think like a baseball player and what they can do to get better. I think the fact that Joey is still playing and they can watch him, what he does when he hits, how he takes batting practice and how he approaches infield work. They can see how he takes the repetition seriously. That's a big thing here, for the 15 minutes we do a drill, to do it the right way. The higher the quality of the reps, then we don't have to do it so often. The kids are receptive to that."
Park senior Jordan Jeske said working with Ligtenberg, Appert and Anthonsen has been exciting.
"You have a lot of talented baseball players that are coaching us," Jeske said. "You really listen to them and try to pick up all the small things they do. As a team, it's been really very competitive out here for spots, so any chance we get we're trying to ask the coaches questions."
Jeske, a pitcher and outfielder, said he's been busy learning tips from Ligtenberg.
"I ask him questions all the time -- how do you hold your change-up, how do you hold your curveball, how do you hold your fastball, small mechanical adjustments -- he played in the pros and knows everything about it," Jeske said. "You can watch and pick up things that we don't even notice. It's a cool experience and something new for me to be able to learn from a pro that went to Park and built his way up."
Numbers of baseball players 'way up'
In the history of Park baseball, there have been only three head coaches --Smith, Kroschel and Tschumperlin. Ligtenberg is No. 4. Tschumperlin spent the past nine years as Park head coach after 14 years as assistant coach under Kroschel -- who succeeded the original Park coaching legend "Granny" Smith.
When he hired Ligtenberg, Park Activities Director Phil Kuemmel said he wasn't just looking to make a splash.
"We weren't just looking for a big name. We were looking for the absolute best candidate. Yes, hopefully, with his background, he is able to drum up some enthusiasm for the program starting at the youth level all the way up to the high school level," Kuemmel said at the time.
Recently, Kuemmel said the number of kids out for baseball was "way up."
"A small part of that has to be because of Kerry," he said. "He's got the name and the pedigree and kids want to come out. That's a good thing."
Ligtenberg said two years ago that he'd never coach a high school team.
"I'm competitive," Ligtenberg said. "I coached my son's pitchball team last year. It was fun, but I started to get really competitive. A reason I came back was to be around the game again and compete even though I'm not playing. It'd be much more fun if I could play, but it's fun to try to get through to the kids and see which ones have some fire, try to make them better and win some games. I didn't come here just to sit here and have us suck all year, I want to win games and make an impact on the program. I think we've had a really good tradition in the past."
Ligtenberg said, overall, he's trying to teach the kids about their "approach" to the game and to "think more like baseball players."
"I think some of the kids are pretty good players and they work hard," he said. "I think a lot of it comes down to desire to get better and that's where we're trying to get things going in the hope that some of them will have an opportunity to play after high school."
'Pack replacing eight seniors, top three hitters
Last year, Park finished eighth in the Suburban East Conference and was 9-13 overall, falling 6-5 to Burnsville in the second round of the Section 3AAA playoffs. Burnsville ended up as he Class AAA state runner-up.
On the season, Park scored an average of 7 runs per game, while allowing 7.4 runs a game, batting .313 as a team and belting 13 home runs.
After the year, Park had to say goodbye to eight seniors from its final roster.
"I know we're in a tough conference, but I think it helps having Joey and Luke and Mr. Kroschel around, because they know we've had a lot of good teams in the past and it was kind of just expected that Park would have a really good baseball team -- we're trying to get that back," Ligtenberg said.
Last year, Park 2010 graduate Lucas Maluski led the team in batting average, hitting .405 on the year, while 2010 graduate Tommy Swanson led the Wolfpack with six homeruns, 28 RBI and 22 runs scored, batting .346 and 2010 graduate Drew Benson was second on the team in batting average, hitting .368, homeruns with three and RBI with 20.
On the mound, Max Bundschu led the team with a 1.94 ERA in 21.67 innings pitched, going 2-0 with one save as a junior. Swanson led the Wolfpack with 43 strikeouts in 56.33 innings while going 2-6 on the year in 10 starts.
Park will field 10 seniors this season.
Bundschu will be called on to help lead the way for Park this year, along with a core that includes fellow seniors Jeske, John Tolkinen, Jordan McGowan, Corey O'Connell and Joe Cocchiarella along with juniors Kyle Fritz, Drew Flack, Tony Gagliardi, Spencer Diedrich and Marshall Freeman.
Ligtenberg said he hasn't watched a high school game in a long time and wasn't exactly sure what to expect this year.
"It's scary in a way, but I think we'll be fine," Ligtenberg said. "We'll play good defense and we'll hit pretty well. The big thing is if we don't pitch well we'll win 10 games, if we pitch OK we'll win 13, but if we pitch really good we could win 16, 17 games. It comes down to throwing strikes and putting the ball in play. I'm optimistic. I expect to win. If we don't win 13, 14 games I'll be disappointed."
Jeske said the outlook so far is pretty good.
"As long as our pitching stays in there we should have a very successful season," Jeske said. "The tryouts were very competitive, because they haven't seen us before. Every single day we're competing for spots. We had an upbeat tempo last year, but this year it's a lot more intense, because your spot and whether you're going to play or not is on the line. Because of that, I have a lot more confidence because we're going to play some serious ball."