FAIRMONT - Fairmont had reached the high school state baseball tournament six times prior to Todd Sukalski becoming the program's head coach in the spring of 2007.
Since Sukalski's arrival to the dugout at Herb Wolf Park, the Cardinals have emerged into both a three-time South Central Conference champion and a three-time Class AA state qualifier.
So, what will Sukalski and his Cardinals do for an encore performance after producing the program's single-season record for victories (25), a share of the SCC crown and a fourth-place showing at Dick Putz Stadium in St. Cloud in 2012?
DEFENDING CHAMPIONS — Members of the three-time Section 3AA champion Fairmont baseball team opening the season by traveling to St. James on Tuesday include, front row (l-r): Brandon Brooks, Jordan Voss, Kyle Guetter, Levi Becker, Mitch Pfingsten and Ryan Noll. Middle row: Spencer Chirpich, Christian Petschke, Matt Tennyson, Cole Emler, Trason Arens and Luke Becker. Back row: Jacob Ellis, Jay Ruen, Sean Klein, Bryce Holm, Josh Eversman, Jon Soucek and Ben Abel. Photo by Leanna Becker
"With seven starters back, the top of our batting order intact and around 90 percent of our innings pitched returning, we probably should be as good or maybe even better this season," Sukalski said. "You have to give our players and coaches (Jerry Brooks, Don Waletich and Adam Schmidt) a lot of credit for guiding our program through the (Section 3AA) gauntlet the last three years and coming out on top each time."
Fairmont will look to take the first step toward a rare fourth consecutive state appearance when the No. 4-ranked team in the Class AA preseason baseball poll travels to SCC rival St. James on Tuesday for its 5:30 p.m. season-opener against the up-and-coming Saints.
"St. James has really improved over the last couple of seasons, and with (senior right-hander) Sam (Carlson) pitching, they have played us close the last couple of times," Sukalski said.
Sukalski, however, returns all three of his top pitchers from a year ago, giving him numerous options on the mound for the 2013 opener and throughout the regular-season schedule.
Sophomore right-hander Spencer Chirpich, who became the first-ever Fairmont baseball player to earn all-state tournament accolades as a freshman in 2012, will step to the hill again after leading the Cardinals with an 8-1 record, including four complete games, to complement a team-best three saves.
The hard-throwing all-Section 3AA and all-SCC hurler compiled a 1.67 ERA in addition to notching 42 strikeouts in 54 1/3 innings of work during his varsity debut season.
"After posting a 1.94 ERA as a team last year, I'd definitely say that pitching was one of our strengths," Sukalski said with a smile.
Junior right-hander Luke Becker and senior right-hander Bryce Holm - a pair of all-conference choices - will join Chirpich in Fairmont's pitching rotation for a second straight season.
Luke Becker produced a 6-1 record, including four complete games, struck out 38 batters and generated a 1.98 ERA in a team-leading 56 2/3 innings of work. Meanwhile, Holm posted a 4-2 mark, including two complete games, and a team-low 1.34 ERA on the strength of a team-leading 45 strikeouts in 41 2/3 frames.
But the Cardinals' talented pitching depth does not stop there as the senior trio of Levi Becker, Jacob Ellis and Jordan Voss, along with junior Jay Ruen, also will be available to log some innings on the hill.
"Levi pitched some big games for us last year, Jay and Jake were our top B-squad pitchers last season, while Jordan threw a number of innings during the legion season," Sukalski said.
While Fairmont's pitching rotation proved a key factor behind generating a 25-5 overall record, including a 9-1 mark against SCC rivals, opposing pitchers will not overlook the fact that the Cardinal offense erupted for 182 runs by pounding the baseball at a .290 clip as a team last spring.
Chirpich, who's the everyday shortstop when not on the mound, and Luke Becker will fill the leadoff and No. 2 spots, respectively, in the batting order.
Chirpich topped the team by scoring 26 runs to complement 18 RBIs and a .330 batting average, while Luke Becker crossed the plate 23 times and drove in 13 runs via a .292 clip inside the batter's box.
Levi Becker, an all-SCC and all-Section jack-of-all-trades selection, will return to the No. 3 spot in the lineup after topping the Cardinals with a .378 batting average behind 37 hits, including a team-best seven doubles, en route to 25 runs scored and a team-leading 21 RBIs.
Junior Mitch Pfingsten, who earned all-sectional honors behind the plate, will likely return to the cleanup spot after driving in 14 runs on the strength of a .319 batting clip a year ago.
While Sukalski will continue to make adjustments to his batting order throughout the season, the seventh-year mentor has his defensive alignment figured out for Tuesday's opener.
Pfingsten and senior Ryan Noll will handle the catching duties, with Pfingsten sharing first base duties with senior Christian Petschke and Noll working into the outfield mix again.
Luke Becker will play second base, with Levi Becker moving to that spot when the younger sibling steps to the hill. Luke Becker, in turn, will handle the shortstop duties when Chirpich gets the starting nod on the mound.
Ruen - who hit .333 in part-time duty a year ago - returns to third base; junior Trason Arens and senior newcomer Matt Tennyson will vie for time at first base; Voss will serve as a utility infielder and part-time outfielder; while Holm, Levi Becker, Ellis, senior Brandon Brooks, junior Josh Eversman, Noll, senior Kyle Guetter and senior Sean Klein will figure into the outfield alignment in a variety of combinations. Junior Jonathan Soucek will round out the roster as a pinch-hit specialist.