Pushing for progress

The Bishop Ryan baseball team returned to the state tournament last season for the first time since 2010, but the dream of a championship run was quickly stamped out.

The Lions entered the tournament 14-1, hungry for their school’s seventh state title. And then, they fizzled.

Ryan dropped its first two games – 5-0 to Grafton and 7-3 to Thompson – en route to a seventh-place finish.

“We weren’t happy with that seventh-place finish,” said Ryan coach Brett Nelson, in his second year at the helm after 12 years as an assistant. “But all the kids here know what to expect when they get to state now. It’s not new to them, and we should be ready to go.”

Ryan was a young team in 2013, which made the shortened season even more difficult to bear. The Lions played just 15 games on their way to the state tournament, something that Nelson feels hurt his team in the end.

“Last spring was a rough one weatherwise,” Nelson said. “I knew I had a young team coming back, and when you miss a whole month of baseball, it hurts. I think with an extra month, we might have done a little bit better.

“Hopefully we can get two months of baseball in and get ready to go.”

The Lions open their season today at Jack Hoeven Park, weather permitting, against Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood-Glenburn-Kenmare at 4 p.m. Regular-season games carry added weight this season thanks to a revised seeding process at the state tournament. Like basketball, the top-four seeds will be arranged based on record while the remaining four seeds will be drawn at random.

In addition to its usual slate of region games, Ryan will also play Rugby, Central McLean and Des Lacs-Burlington.

“Regular-season games mean a lot more this year, and we have a good nonconference schedule,” Nelson said. “We’ll definitely see where we’re at within the next couple weeks, and hopefully we’re in that top one or two by the end of the year.”

The Lions have made a habit of finishing at the head of the pack. They’ve made nine appearances in the state title game since 1995. During that span, they won six, including a recent spell when the Lions locked up the fourth three-peat in the history of Class B baseball (2007-09).

But it’s been four years since Ryan’s last championship, and this year, players are anxious to end the drought.

“Our goal is to win state,” said senior pitcher Austin Eggl, who led the Ryan staff in 2013 with 20 innings pitched. “That’s the way Bishop Ryan baseball has always been and that’s what we want to get back to.”

Senior slugger Mason Kramer agrees and believes that additional experience can make the difference for the Lions.

Ryan has six seniors on its roster this spring, all of whom saw significant playing time last season.

“Last year we had a really small senior class, and this year we have a big one, especially for Class B baseball,” Kramer said. “The leadership part of things will be huge for us. We’ve got a lot of guys that know how to play baseball, know how to win, and our goal has to be to win state.”

Kramer led Ryan in a number of offensive categories last season, including batting average (.524), doubles (6), home runs (4) and RBIs (24).

He is expected to lead a potent Lions lineup this spring, a lineup that batted .430 collectively in 2013.

As for Ryan’s pitching staff, depth and experience are assets that the Lions will have at their disposal. Returning pitchers accounted for all 15 of Ryan’s wins last season.

“We’ve got 7-8 kids that feel comfortable throwing a varsity game,” Nelson said. “These kids have been in the weight room a lot, and football has really helped with that. The kids are stronger, they’re throwing the ball harder. I’m excited about how we’ll match up with other teams.”

Joe Mellenbruch covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @Mellenbruch_MDN.