Time to rise for Tigers

Published 2:01 am Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The stakes have risen this spring for the Albert Lea baseball team following a 12-11 season that ended in a pair of losses to Owatonna, the eventual Section 1AAA champion, in the postseason.

The Tigers haven’t won a conference title since the 1970s, but with a strong core of the lineup back it appears Albert Lea will be competitive in the conference.

Just two players graduated from last year’s team that went 9-9 in the conference, tied for sixth.

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“You just have to keep improving every year,” said Tigers head coach Joe Sczublewski, who returns for his 22nd year at Albert Lea. “People have to keep taking jumps in their game. If you can do that you’re in good shape.”

One of those jumps the team will need to take is competing against the top teams in the conference. The Tigers went 4-7 against teams which finished ahead of them in the standings. Those four victories all came in the first half of the season.

Albert Lea lost center fielder Logan Kortan and second baseman Cody Hansen to graduation and return with more experience when the Tigers open the season Thursday against Waseca at Hayek Field

Albert Lea expects to have some depth on the mound with four pitchers returning. The Tigers as a team last season had an ERA of 3.99. Senior Jordan Cooper anchors the staff after going 4-1 last year with a 3.20 ERA. Opponents hit just .172 against him and he struck out 23 in 30 2/3 innings. Senior Colby Strilaeff also went 4-1 with a 3.50 ERA in 32 innings. Junior Aaron Klatt returns after a strong summer, as does junior Cole Sorenson, who will likely see an increased role after Kortan’s graduation.

“We feel our four pitchers that return from last season have all shown improvement in the gym,” Sczublewski said. “They’re all throwing a little harder, their breaking balls seem to be effective. They look like they’re making a jump from last spring.”

The Tigers found themselves in the state rankings last season for a short time after getting out to a 9-3 start, but faded down the stretch to go 3-8 in their final 11 games.

“The biggest concern I think is we’ll have to field the ball better than we did last year,” Sczublewski said. “Last year we were very erratic at times. We lost some games that we should have probably won because we just didn’t field the ball properly.”

Albert Lea made 50 errors in 23 games last season.

The Tigers return one of the best lineups in the conference. In Big Nine games Albert Lea hit .289 to finish behind only John Marshall, which spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the state, and Owatonna, which beat the Rockets to advance to state.

Senior left fielder Jordan Mondeel led the Tigers with a .449 average, the second highest Sczublewski has seen in his tenure at Albert Lea, and scored 26 runs from the leadoff spot. Cooper hit .306 with 15 RBIs while junior right fielder Connor Kortan led the team with 20 RBIs and finished with a .370 average. Klatt returns after finishing second on the team with 17 RBIs and senior catcher Luke Grossman hit .309 with 10 RBIs.

“I’m excited about the way the guys are hitting the ball,” Sczublewski said.

The Tigers begin the conference schedule against Winona next Tuesday in Winona.