Panthers lay solid foundation for future
Dan Etter can point to one bad inning in several games that prevented the Park Rapids baseball team from having even more success this season.
The Panthers ended the season with an 11-11 overall record in Etter's first season as head coach. However, Park Rapids let several other wins slip away.
In the 11 losses, the Panthers gave up at least three runs in an inning in 10 of those games. Committing 57 errors was the main reason opponents were able to produce some big innings and prevented the Panthers from making a deeper run in the Section 8AA playoffs.
"My first season went well. We had our ups and downs, but overall I think we played good baseball throughout the year," said Etter. "We were very young, yet we beat some very good teams. If we could take away one inning from a few games, we would have had a few more in the win column."
Park Rapids opened the season with an 8-4 loss to Perham as the Yellowjackets took advantage of four errors to score five runs in the third inning and three runs in the fourth. The Panthers had 11 hits in that game.
A four-game winning streak followed as the Panthers defeated Cass Lake 13-1 in five innings, Bagley 8-1 and Frazee 1-0 to win the title in their annual wood bat tournament. Park Rapids managed only 17 hits in those three games, but played solid defense by making only two fielding errors while the pitching staff allowed only eight hits.
An 11-hit attack sparked the Panthers to a 6-5 win over Crookston. The Pirates scored four times in the third inning in the loss. Park Rapids prevailed despite making five errors in the field.
Staples-Motley capitalized on five errors to score twice in the fifth and once in the seventh for a 5-4 win in the first game of the Mid-State Conference opener. Park Rapids salvaged the split as a 12-run fourth inning and 19-hit attack led to a 15-1 win in five innings in the second game.
Crosby-Ironton scored four runs in the fourth and rallied to score four times in the seventh for an 11-8 win in the first game of another conference doubleheader. Park Rapids lost despite belting out 14 hits. Park Rapids rebounded with a 12-hit attack to earn the split with a 7-4 victory in the second game.
A six-run fourth inning led Barnesville to an 8-7 win as the Panthers couldn't capitalize on six errors by the Trojans.
Park Rapids improved to 8-4 on the season by sweeping a conference doubleheader from Detroit Lakes. The Panthers followed a 5-4 win in the first game with a 20-18 victory in the second game behind a season-high 22-hit attack. Park Rapids held on in the second game as the Lakers scored three times in the first, five times in the second, four times in the fourth and five times in the seventh. Park Rapids erupted for five runs in the third and fourth frames, seven runs in the fifth and three runs in the sixth to prevail in a slugfest.
Pequot Lakes took advantage of 12 errors to sweep a conference doubleheader by scores of 9-5 and 9-2. The Patriots scored three runs in the fifth in the first game and five runs in the fifth in the second game to spark the sweep. Pequot Lakes won the conference title with an 8-0 record while Park Rapids finished at 4-4. C-I and Detroit Lakes went 3-5 and Staples-Motley finished at 2-6.
East Grand Forks scored four runs in the fifth to spark a 10-5 win while Wadena-Deer Creek scored three times in the sixth for a 3-1 victory. Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton used a three-run seventh inning to seal a 4-0 victory over the Panthers.
The Panthers ended that five-game losing streak by closing the regular season with wins over Frazee (9-6) and Bagley (3-2). Park Rapids scored five times in the fourth to rally past Frazee and had two timely hits to edge Bagley to end the regular season with a 10-9 record.
That gave the Panthers the No. 2 seed in the North for the Section 8AA playoffs. Park Rapids opened with a 12-2 loss to East Grand Forks in five innings as the Green Wave scored 11 times in the third inning. The Panthers stayed alive with a 4-3 win over Roseau by scoring twice in the bottom of the seventh before having the season end with a 5-4 loss to Frazee as the Hornets advanced by scoring five runs in the fifth inning. Park Rapids had 11 hits in that game while Frazee managed only five hits. Warroad defeated Perham for the section title.
"I'm really proud of how well the kids played in the postseason," said Etter. "Once again, if we could take away one inning from the East Grand Forks game, we would have been playing for the subsection championship with only one senior on the team."
For the season, the Panthers had a team batting average of .322 while scoring 132 runs (6.0 per game). Park Rapids allowed 129 runs (5.9 per game).
Leading the Panthers were senior Sam Eystad, juniors Jason Haas and Austin Jerger, and sophomores Gabe Bagstad and Tristin Persons. Eystad and Haas earned Section 8AA honors and joined Bagstad and Persons as all-conference players. Jerger was an all-conference honorable mention selection.
Eystad, the team's Most Valuable Player, went 5-3 on the mound and hit .309 (21 for 68) with 13 runs and nine RBI. Eystad played second base when not pitching.
Haas played shortstop, third base and the outfield while hitting .410 (25 for 61) with 19 runs, 11 stolen bases and 15 RBI.
Bagstad went 0-3 on the mound and batted .435 (27 for 62) with 15 runs and eight RBI. Bagstad played shortstop when not pitching. Bagstad was named the Panthers' Rookie of the Year.
Persons had a 2-1 record as a starting pitcher and batted .333 (23 for 69) with a team-leading 28 stolen bases and 25 runs scored. Persons, who also played center field and catcher, had nine RBI.
Jerger played catcher and the outfield and hit .344 (22 for 64) while leading the team with 20 RBI. Jerger also scored 18 runs and received the team's Mr. Offense honor.
Also playing key roles for the Panthers this season were juniors Zach Hocking, Will Pickar and Dawson Roth and sophomores Nathan David, Ty Karger, Cameron Hoyt, Brendan Kruchowski and Luke Dickinson.
Hocking (who was named Mr. Defense) hit .324 (22 for 68) with eight runs and 12 RBI as the starting first baseman. Pickar, who started in the outfield when not pitching, went 2-4 on the mound and batted .318 (21 for 66) with 11 runs and six RBI. Roth scored four runs while filling in at an outfield position. David started at third base and hit .241 (14 for 58) with seven runs and six RBI. Karger hit .256 (10 for 39) with six runs as a reserve outfielder. Hoyt played second base and hit .278 (5 for 18). Kruchowski had a 1-0 record as a pitcher and batted .182 (2 for 11) with three runs as a reserve outfielder. Kruchowski was named the team's Most Improved Player. Dickinson hit .167 (1 for 6) and saw action at third base.
Even though replacing Eystad is going to be tough, Etter is counting on a veteran lineup to produce more wins and lead the Panthers deeper into the playoffs next spring.
"We need to correct the little things next season, but we will be bringing back 11 really good players with varsity experience and that is huge. Experience at the varsity level is really important," said Etter. "We've got a solid group of juniors and seniors for next year and the players behind them are competing hard to get to the next level. I'm very optimistic about the future of Park Rapids baseball."