ST. CLOUD - Todd Sukalski opened spring baseball practice back in March with only three starters returning from last year's Section 3AA runner-up team.
Eleven weeks later, the eighth-year Fairmont mentor and his No. 3-ranked Cardinals ride a school-record 23-game winning streak into the program's fourth state baseball tournament over the last five seasons.
Fairmont (23-1), which earned the No. 2 seed in the Class AA state tourney, faces unranked Aitkin (22-4) in a 5:30 p.m. quarterfinal on Thursday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud.
BOUND FOR ST. CLOUD — Members of the Fairmont Cardinal baseball team opening the Class AA state tournament against Aitkin at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud include, front row (l-r): Head coach Todd Sukalski, Clayton Maakestad, Tyler Tennyson, Matt Lytle, Parker Monsen, Nate Johnson and assistant coach Jerry Brooks. Middle row: Trainer Brant Boekelman, Cole Emler, Eli Green, Jack Waletich, Evan Closs, Nathan Gillis and Michael Hawkins. Back row: Spencer Chirpich, Ben Abel, Kale Fritz, Bailey Koppen, Luke Becker, Jay Ruen and assistant coach Don Waletich. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
"I have to admit I didn't think we'd go 23-1, especially against the quality competition we've faced throughout the regular season and playoffs," Sukalski said with a smile. "After the first game, however, I could tell we had players who could compete with any team in our (South Central) conference or section."
So, what's the secret behind the Cardinals' success this spring?
"Luke (Becker) and Jay (Ruen) have provided great team leadership for us. As our only two seniors, they've accepted the younger players and worked with them, and that has led to good team chemistry," said Sukalski. "Another factor is a lot of these guys spend extra time on hitting. ... They'll take extra cuts in the batting cage after practice or they'll go to the Beckers and hit out there."
After glancing at Fairmont's team batting average - a staggering .360, the Cardinal players' diligence and work ethic have paid dividends in both an undefeated conference championship and a perfect sectional record.
The switch-hitting Becker, who will play in the all-star baseball series June 20-21 in Chaska, tops Fairmont's offensive charts with a .542 batting clip to complement 34 runs scored and 37 RBIs on the strength of a single-season school-record nine home runs.
Ruen has delivered a second-best 30 RBIs behind one homer and seven doubles to go with a .333 batting clip and 25 runs scored, while sophomore Jack Waletich has compiled the team's second-best hitting mark of .438 behind one homer and eight doubles to complement 23 RBIs and 28 runs scored.
Junior standout Spencer Chirpich, who was selected to the 2012 Class AA all-state tournament team, has produced the third-best clip from the batter's box (.393), in addition to scoring 22 runs and driving in 16 this spring.
While Fairmont's potent offense also has generated 209 runs, 179 RBIs and a dozen homers, Aitkin's pre-state statistics are equally impressive.
The Jeremy Janzen-coached Gobblers, who are making the school's first-ever state baseball appearance, have crossed the plate 252 times, collected 202 RBIs, stolen 87 bases and carry a lofty .400 team batting average into Thursday's quarterfinal.
"Wow, those are huge numbers," Sukalski said in reference to Aitkin's team totals.
Nathan Ehnstrom tops the Gobblers' hitting attack with a .480 clip and has driven in a second-best 26 runs, while Drew Nordean and Logan Quade each have compiled .400-plus averages. Nordean is hitting .419 with 20 RBIs, Quade is batting .410 with 24 RBIs, while Jake Lynn leads the team in RBIs (29) behind a .325 clip.
But neither Fairmont nor Aitkin are limited to outstanding hitting as both the Cardinals and Gobblers feature shutdown pitching staffs.
Chirpich, a hard-throwing right-hander, tops Fairmont's miniscule team ERA of 2.30 at 0.78, including a near-perfect, one-hit shutout in a 3-0 sectional championship win over Marshall last Thursday. Chirpich sports a 5-0 record, with 33 strikeouts in 36 innings.
Becker has compiled a 7-0 record and 1.89 ERA on the strength of 30 strikeouts in 37 innings, while sophomore right-hander Clayton Maakestad has generated a 5-0 mark and 2.40 ERA, with 26 strikeouts in 35 innings.
"Ben Abel has been an important factor for us, too. He's done a nice job of catching and calling games, and he's thrown out 70 percent of the baserunners trying to steal," said Sukalski.
Across the diamond, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Lynn has compiled a 4-1 mound mark, 2.41 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 41 innings of work.
Ehnstrom leads Aitkin with a 5-1 record, but sports a 4.28 ERA while striking out 46 in 40 innings on the hill. Senior Daniel Bender rounds out the Gobblers' pitching rotation with a 2-0 mark, 1.80 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 15 frames.
"Besides the stats we've seen on the high school league website, we don't know that much about Aitkin and vice versa," said Sukalski. "In fact, we don't know that much about the rest of the teams either - with the exception of playing St. Cloud Cathedral in the 2011 state semifinals - but that's what makes it interesting.
"Our guys really stepped up during the sectional tournament in Marshall, and I have confidence that they can do it again this week."