Another “Sting” Operation: 2011 Season Review
When children are introduced to the game of baseball, the first lesson many of them receive revolves around one basic principle; see ball, hit ball. The 2011 Willmar Stingers had an impressive accumulation of young hitters who did just that. Three Stingers (Pat Stover, Mitchell Rowan, Eduardo Gonzalez) ranked in the top 12 in terms of batting average on the Northwoods League leader board. A lanky corner outfielder who would later become a fixture in the middle of the Stinger batting order, Pat Stover arrived in Minnesota and impressed fans on June 18th with a 2 hit performance as the Stingers stung the Duluth Huskies, 7-3. The 20 year old Stover was a 17th round draft selection by the Oakland Athletics in 2009 and will return for his junior year as a member of the Santa Clara Broncos baseball team after hitting .337 for the Stingers. Dual sport athlete Mitchell Rowan hit. 333 and swiped 22 bags for the Stingers. He led the team in OPS (.870) and on base percentage (.430) while battling through a lingering injury to make several sensational plays on Baker Field. The Willamette outfielder also set a single-season team record for doubles with 19, besting the original mark of 13 set by teammate Eduardo Gonzalez. The aforementioned Gonzalez barreled balls throughout the gaps and snatched up throws off the diamond all summer long. The Alcorn State and SWAC standout hit .323, smashed 16 doubles, and made the midseason all-star team as a representative of the North in July.
The Stingers won the same number of games in 2011 as 2010 (39), but manager Matt Hollod made the best out of every situation as the team dealt with injuries, severe weather, and the loss of many key expected contributors who were drafted in early June. In 2010, the Willmar Stingers stole 99 bases. Hollod’s second Stingers squad increased that total to 118. Reinforcements came when Creighton, Alcorn State, and California’s impressive seasons ended in the NCAA tournament. Kurt Spomer led the team in saves with 6 and had the best existing fastball on the team, residing in the low 90s while often pitching to battery mate and Sauk Rapids, MN native Anthony Bemboom. Mitch Delfino missed the start of the season but had a perfectly apt reason as he manned third base for Cal in the College World Series. In a critical game, Delfino had two hits against Virginia southpaw Danny Hultzen who would later sign with the Seattle Mariners as the number 2 overall draft choice. Delfino and Maryland freshman Jake Stinnett collaborated on an effective platoon at third base.
Powerful shortstops are the exception rather than the rule at every level of baseball. But the Willmar Stingers found one when they signed Bradley’s Jason Leblebijian. An impressive athlete who works extremely hard in the gym when not on the baseball field, Leblebijian’s exciting season was marked by a batting average of .283, 19 stolen bases, 37 RBIs, and a team-leading three triples. Leblebijian also took Woody Allen’s famous quote about showing up to heart, leading the team in games played with 68. His Bradley teammate Rob Elliot was one of his frequent double play cohorts at 2B before an unfortunate hand injury sidelined him for the rest of the season on July 10th. Garrett Borba (Pacific) and Chris Woolley (Western Nevada) filled in the rest of the season.
The affable Sean Dwyer returned for a second Northwoods season and once again posted gaudy offensive numbers for the Stingers. The 6’1 190 lb Dwyer hit .298, led the team in walks, and hit seven homers while making the North all-star team. Affectionately known as “Scarf”, Stephen F. Austin catcher Jarid Scarafiotti posted a .290 batting average and showcased his defensive talents with a strong and accurate throwing arm. Viterbo’s Blake Sheppard led the team in home runs (9) and has the distinction as the first Stinger to hit a home run in his very first Northwoods League game.
Pitching great Bob Gibson once said, “I owe the public one thing- a good performance.” On August 5th, that performance was submitted by Scott Leiser as he struck out 10 against the Mankato Moondogs and set a team-record in the process. The lanky SCSU righty with a high leg kick was reliable in 2011, leading the team in innings pitches, quality starts, strikeouts, complete games and games started. Stinger pitchers Ricky Knapp and Tanner Banks made the mid-season Northwoods League classic. A Florida Gulf Coast righty, Knapp displayed impeccable control all season for the Stingers, walking a remarkably miniscule total of four hitters while striking out 47, boasting an impressive K to walk ratio of over 4:1 and an ERA of 2.63. Salt Lake CC southpaw Banks was impressive as a starter but took extremely well to a move to the bullpen by pitching coach Tyler Shepple and manager Matt Hollod. Banks posted a WHIP of 1.15 in accordance with traditional baseball statistics such as a 3.63 ERA. Another control artist from the Sunshine State, LHP Ben Burns of Daytona State College posted a 3.97 ERA and won his final start of the season against the playoff bound Alexandria Beatles. LHP Kody Gorden, RHP Thomas Taylor, LHP Dan Russell, and LHP/1B John Haberman also made starts for the Willmar Stingers in 2011.
San Diego LHP Jack Shannon led the team in games pitched with 25. The 6’3 185 lb southpaw had the natural stuff to overpower Northwoods League sluggers by coincidentally limiting them to a batting average of .172 and posting an impressive 1.72 ERA himself. A talented athlete, Shannon was also called on as a pinch-runner during the season. California also produced another talented pitcher for the 2011 team in Point Loma RHP Chris Gonzales. A tenacious competitor on the mound but a good-natured class act off it, Gonzales’ ERA of 3.40 came in a myriad of circumstances as the team’s setup man before establishing himself as a Northwoods League starter in August with a pair of impressive outings. Another versatile righty Michael Shreves entrenched himself as the team’s primary bridge arm out of the bullpen. The team’s first player out of the Peach Belt conference, the Montevallo hurler flashed a 3.57 ERA over approximately 45 innings of work.