By Matt Bunke, Community Editor
With its 7-11 record this season, the Watertown-Mayer baseball team finished with its best winning percentage in years. But Royals coach Justin Stohs knows his team could have won even more games than it did.
In their first season in the Minnesota River Conference, the Royals went 6-8 and finished tied for fourth place. It was a huge step up from how the Royals had been faring in the Wright County Conference, but there were still a few games the Royals let slip away. Four of the 11 losses were decided by two runs or fewer.
"It was nice to get more wins, but at the same time, it would have been nice to win a few more," Stohs said. "It’s disappointing because you’re a hit or two away from winning two or three or four more games. But at same time, we weren’t getting blown out like we had been. It shows that every game, we can win, and we’re coming in with a different attitude every game. That makes all the difference in terms of effort and overall enjoyment of the year."
The Royals were rewarded with four players who earned all-conference honors. Pitchers Matt Schreder and Max Zitzloff, along with shortstop Matt Elsenpeter, made the first team, and catcher Nick Tschida was honorable mention.
Schreder, the team’s senior leader and captain, pitched a team-high 42 innings and posted a 3.33 ERA. He allowed 42 hits and struck out 27, and when he wasn’t pitching, he roamed center field as a stellar defensive player.
"The last two years he has been the most stable pitcher we’ve had in long time," Stohs said. "He was a big time competitor on the mound. He wanted the ball and wanted to finish his games. When he was on the mound the team played with a whole nother confidence. It was nice going into games knowing you’d have a chance with him out there. Also, he was a three-year starter in center field that I don’t think I ever saw take a wrong first step. He was one of most dependable center fielders you’ll ever have. He gave a lot to the program over the last three years."
Zitzloff worked 39 innings for the Royals, posting a team-best 2.15 ERA. The hard-throwing junior struck out 48 hitters and walked only 27.
"After a start or two, Max really turned it around," Stohs said. "He had an ERA in the low 2s, and he also brought a confidence to the team when he was on the mound."
Elsenpeter, the team’s starting shortstop, led all regulars with a .352 batting average and a .476 on base percentage. His 19 hits were easily a team-high, and he also was second on the team with 63 plate appearances.
"He brought a stability up the middle," Stohs said. "He brought a dependability, a confidence, a leadership to the infield, and that was huge."
Tschida was an honorable-mention all-conference selection after hitting .250, third on the team. The junior catcher’s 66 plate appearances led the team, as did his 11 runs.
"Originally he may have been an outfielder, but he went behind the plate and became very dependable and really improved as the year went on," Stohs said. "He brought us stability to the position."
Other key offensive players for the Royals included senior third basemen Alex Bakke, who hit .286, and Brendan Weege, who led the team with six RBIs and matched Tschida for the team lead with three doubles.
The Royals’ strength was on the mound, where, in addition to Schreder and Zitzloff, the Royals got solid contributions from a number of other players. Alex Runck worked 14 innings and posted a 3.50 ERA, along with two saves. And, although he only worked nine innings, seven of them in one late-season start, Weege posted a 1.56 ERA. As at team, the Royals had a 3.24 ERA and allowed only 113 hits in 119 innings.
The Royals also handed out a number of team awards, with the Mike Dressen Sportsmanship Award – given to the player that best displays sportsmanship and integrity and generally plays the game the "right way" – going to Schreder. Schreder was also a co-MVP, along with Zitzloff, in an honor that was voted on by teammates. Zitzloff was also named the Most Improved.
The team graduated seven seniors, including Bakke, Runck, Schreder, Adrian Eliason, Scott Mellgren, Adam Parker and Chris Rogman.
"Every year you’re going to miss a few seniors," Stohs said. "This group was really fun to be around and charismatic. You could rally joke around with them and have some fun, and they had a good work ethic."
Other letter winners for the Royals included Elsenpeter, Tschida, Weege, Zitzloff, P.J. Hangartner, Joe Reinert, Mark Sandquist, Adam Traen and David Gallus, all of whom will return for their senior years next season.
"It was just a good year," Stohs said. "I wish we would have gotten more wins, but we’re changing the culture in terms of having an expectation to win. We’ve always had it, but now there’s a belief we can do it. Getting that culture changed is going to be fun over the next couple years."