As anyone in Valley City will tell you, winter doesn’t always treat springs sports teams well.
But as this last winter progressed in a mild fashion, Valley City State University baseball coach Casey Olney and his coaching counterparts at Dickinson State University and Jamestown College kicked around the idea of moving the Dakota Athletic Conference preseason tournament from sites in South Dakota to local fields.
But even those talks were done with a hint of caution as coaches waited to see whether their fields would be playable.
“Making plans for baseball season is a little bit dangerous,” Olney said. “We talked about it, got the wheels turning, but we didn’t make a decision until Monday.”
The decision the coaches made was to move the two-day round robin tournament to Valley City Saturday and Jamestown Sunday.
As a result, the Vikings are playing their first home game about two weeks earlier than expected. The team’s first scheduled home game was April 9 against North State (S.D.) University.
The tournament starts with three games Saturday at Charlie Brown Field.
Jamestown plays Dickinson at 11 a.m., with Jamestown and Valley City following. The Vikings then play Dickinson to end the day.
Sunday, the tournament moves to Jamestown. The Jimmies and Dickinson open the day again, with Valley City against the Blue Hawks. VCSU and Jamestown wrap up day two.
The tournament comes roughly midway through the season as the Vikings head into a 24 game span that, rather than the first 20, stays largely local with most of the games against DAC and Association of Independent Institution teams from Dickinson, Jamestown, and Mayville State University, with games against North Dakota State and the University of North Dakota mixed in as well.
“This is kind of like our second season,” Olney said. “We’ve had some time to get out on our field and get our spikes in the dirt and now we’re playing the teams up here.”
Of the three DAC teams in the tournament, VCSU (7-13) enters the tournament as the only with a losing record. Jamestown comes in third in the AII standings with a 14-9-1 record and Dickinson has a 12-12 record.
Jamestown looks to bring a quick group of offensive players into the tournament. As of Tuesday, the Jimmies had 48 doubles, seven triples and 69 stolen bases on 74 attempts. Three players have more than 10 stolen bases on the season.
Pitcher Adam Ranger leads the Jimmies on the mound with a 1.50 ERA and a 4-0 record in 24 innings pitched.
Dickinson, however, looks to play a balanced game. The Blue Hawks enter the tournament with only seven extra base hits all season and limited stolen bases. Starting pitcher Tanner Newman has a 2-2 record with a 3.86 ERA in 28 innings.
Olney said it should be a balanced tournament amongst the three teams.
“There should be some good competitive games, it’s just a matter of which team plays the best each game,” Olney said.
The Vikings, though, bring plenty of talent to the plate, despite having lost three in a row and eight of their last 10 games.
Pitcher Ronnie Blagg leads the team with 31 innings pitched, a 3-1 record and a 1.74 ERA. Relying largely on precise command and plenty of movement, he’s limited hitters to only four walks so far this season.
“If you see him throwing in the bullpen, you’re not really nervous about what you see,” Olney said. “He locates and his pitches have movement. That’s how he gets it done.”
Teammate Ryan Shaw has also had three wins on the mound and Taylor Nelson, a First Team All Conference player in the DAC last season, has also started to find his form despite an 0-4 record.
The Vikings also are capable of offensive production. Kyle Skinner leads the team with a .618 slugging percentage. He has 20 hits, including five doubles, three triples and a home run.
Preston Jensen leads the team with a .406 batting average and is one of five players with a batting average over .350 in over 50 at-bats. He’s joined by Josh Evans (.364, 18 RBI), Brenden Shearer (.370, 5 doubles) and Skinner (.364).
Olney said the biggest key to getting wins this weekend will be getting all the talent to click at the same time.
“We’re going to have to put complete games together,” he said. “I’m talking about pitching it well, playing defense, a whole bunch of quality at-bats, running the bases.
“If we do that, we will be just fine.”