Saturday, August 31, 2013

Veteran Greyhounds build for future, play for today

The Austin Greyhounds have a rich history in amateur baseball state tournaments – the team’s made appearances in 13 of its past 16 seasons.

It’s been 10 years since its won a state title, however. A streak the team hopes to break this weekend.

“We’re a hot team right now, we really have what it takes to win it all,” manager Matt Cano said. “We just need to go on a five-game winning streak,”

To win it all, Austin has no margin for error. Losing a 4-2 decision to Shakopee in this year’s Class B state tournament opener on Saturday, Austin immediately found itself in the loser’s bracket of the double-elimination event.
Matt Cano (23) at bat, with Craig Braaten (2) on deck

But the team had won eight straight before Shakopee and a 10-2 shellacking of St. Michael on Sunday has kept the team confident.

“Our team really believes we can win the state championship,” Cano said. “But we’re also smart enough to know it takes one game at a time.”

The first of its five roadblocks to the title is this Friday night, when the Greyounds take on the Eagan Bandits at Maple Lake’s Irish Stadium.
Between Cano, 40, the team’s manager since 2003, general manager John Frien, 35, and new acquisition Dave Adams, 44, Austin has a plethora of experience and knowledge to draw from.

All three are baseball junkies – you have to be to play amateur baseball for as long as they have. Frien, an Austin lifer, has been with the Greyhounds the longest – joining the team in 1997. Cano grew up in Austin, before playing several years of professional ball and joining the Greyhounds in 2002. Adams was a 19-year-veteran of the Rochester Royals before joining the Hounds in June.

Last year was a struggle for Austin. Despite its 22-24 record, the team managed to make it to state. Its appearance was over in a blink, however, as the team went two and out without scoring a run.

This year, Austin has enjoyed success all summer long and brings a 25-10 record into Friday’s game. Cano and Frien believe some new players, an improved pitching staff and stronger will to win has made the difference.

“[It’s] definitely about being more dedicated,” Frein said.

Frien believes year’s team has been putting in the extra work it takes to be a better ballclub. He said the pitching staff, in particular, has made strides this year. Led by Joe Huffman and Nels Nelson, Frien said his pitchers have routinely worked out together throughout the season.

“[Nelson] and Huffman are our aces, Weston Hanson’s pitched a lot more innings, Brian Toov has come along,” Frien said. “Then there’s Zack Schara, he’s kind of a bulldog. He’s basically been our closer, another weapon we have.”

Cano and Frien believe first baseman Adams, along with Jeremy Williams and the return of Craig Braaten to the Hounds lineup have been key additions to this year’s team.

1B Dave Adams, 2B Joe Kroc, CF Jeremy Williams
Adams has hit near .400 this season, including a tournament-best .571 average through two games. Braaten, who took last season off to experience fatherhood for the first time, has returned to bring a strong bat to Austin’s lineup (Braaten bashed a three-run homer in the St. Michael win). Then there’s the energizer – Williams.

“Williams is a dynamite player,” Frien said of his 23-year-old centerfielder. “[He’s] built like Adrian Peterson. Still a young buck; a big, strong guy.”

A native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., Williams came to Austin after attending college at Tuskegee University, where he played quarterback for the school’s football team and played infield and pitcher for Tuskegee’s baseball team.

Williams said he found out about the Greyhounds from a couple of teammates who work at Hormel with him. Frein said he’s glad to have him, that he brings a lot of energy to the team.

“He’s always a hustle player, beats out ground balls and always runs hard,” Frien said. “ He wasn’t a strong hitter earlier in the year, but he’s really come on of late.”

Williams made a wall-smashing catch on a line drive over his head to center Sunday against St. Michael. He also hit one of four home runs for Austin that day.

Cano feels strongly about the team’s defense as well. He has the experience. He knows what it takes and he believes the Greyhounds have the ingredients to win it all.

Cano and Frien are passionate about the future of Austin baseball. They talk about grooming players like Williams, Nick Huntley (a legion standout) and players as young as Jordan Hart, a 16-year-old from Lyles, to take the Greyhounds in the future.

But for Austin natives and longtime Greyhounds veterans Cano and Frien, along with Adams, their time is now.

The trio has the spirit, knowledge and wisdom to coach the game for years to come. As players, the team’s elder statesmen have a chance to lead their team to a title this weekend.

Showdown with the Bandits
The Greyhounds are familiar with Eagan. Austin defeated the Bandits 4-3 at Austin’s Marcussen Park in the super sectionals Aug. 16.

“Eagan’s a good ballclub,” Cano said. “They’re young, they run really well and they can hit the ball pretty good too. Just because we beat them last time, doesn’t mean we’ll beat them this time.”

Eagan enters the contest 20-14 on the season. The Bandits defeated last season’s Class B champion, Victoria, 7-2 on Saturday. Eagan then lost to Cold Spring 10-1 on Sunday.

**I wrote this story for the Rochester Post-Bulletin and Austin Post-Bulletin. It's coverage of the Austin Greyhounds during the team's 2013 Class B state tournament run from Sunday, Aug. 25 2013 to Friday, Aug. 30 at Irish Stadium in Maple Lake, Minn.

No comments: