Vikings determined to change losing ways
They’re talking like winners.
They’re not making the excuses of an almost-endless list of losing teams.
They’re not even complaining about starting the season like all South Tahoe High baseball teams begin – in the school’s gym.
“I never really thought being in the gym is much of an excuse not to come out ready to play against hard teams,” said Vikings junior cleanup hitter Mike Hennessy. “Pretty much, the heart of this team has been playing together for our whole careers. During all-stars last summer we started to show how good we are, and this year, we’re going to put it all together.”
Hennessy isn’t an isolated optimist in the Vikings camp.
“The kind of records we’ve had in past in baseball, that’s not going to cut it this year,” said senior southpaw pitcher Tim Sprinkles. “We’ve decided as a team, we’re not going to let it happen. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get the job done this year and turn some heads doing it.”
Even second-year manager Doug Russell is letting on that something special might be brewing at Todd Fields.
“There’s no doubt this year that we’re gonna surprise some people,” Russell said. “I’m very excited about this year. We’ve had some players putting in more time, with more effort than I think has been done in the past. But I think the success of this team hinges on the team coming together as one with everybody contributing.”
Their task is daunting. No Vikings baseball team ever has enjoyed a winning record in the Northern Nevada League. In fact, the ’94 Vikings club that became the first team in school in history to make the Nevada playoffs finished 10-10, including 8-9 in league play.
“We’ve decided as a team that our goal is to make the playoffs this year,” Sprinkles said. “We’ve already committed to making it a winning season, and making the playoffs is our main goal.”
Considering the Vikings are coming off a 3-24 season, such optimism doesn’t seem realistic. But don’t tell that to a junior core of players who enjoyed a breakout offensive season on junior varsity last year and then followed that up by advancing to the Babe Ruth regionals in Southern California last summer.
“There’s more talent and a stronger group of kids than Tahoe’s seen of late,” Russell said. “They’ve played together, but they need to step it up. We’re still a level behind the elite teams in this league, not necessarily physically, but mentally we don’t have the killer instinct we need.”
The Vikings are well-armed this season with Sprinkles and junior Chris Hannum leading a seven-man staff capable of winning some games on its own.
Looking back to when the Vikings went to the playoffs in 1994, then-coach Reve Ramos had two stoppers on the mound – Jordan Romero (a minor-league pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles) and former Sacramento City College pitcher Forest Westover.
But Russell has many more arms at his disposal. Blend in senior T.J. Prevost and juniors Ryan Cullen, Cory Poulen, Matt Connelly and Jarred Uppendahl, and the Vikings shouldn’t have weary arms by season’s end.
“With our depth of pitching there’s no reason to leave someone out on the mound who’s struggling,” Russell said. “But if you’re going to get guys early, you better have guys throwing strikes and getting outs behind them.”
The productivity of the pitching staff may hinge on the health of Sprinkles’ left shoulder. He’s missed large parts of the past two seasons on the mound because of a sore shoulder. The two-year starting varsity football quarterback says the shoulder feels fine and hopes to start on the mound in Thursday’s season opener at Elko.
“I don’t think my shoulder will give me the trouble like in the past,” Sprinkles said. “I’m really looking forward to this year. With the proper coaching I’m getting right now I’m getting the fundamentals down and it’s helping my speed and accuracy. I’m expecting a pretty good year out of my arm.”
Junior John Capitani returns behind the dish to handle the promising pitching staff.
While Russell probably can’t go wrong by sending any of his seven pitchers to the mound, he’ll be stressed trying to find the right combination of hitters.
“Every day, we’ll have some players sitting on the bench who could be playing for other teams,” Russell said. “We have an infield that goes five deep and an outfield that goes six deep.
“I could throw out another seven out there after the starting nine and compete with anybody. It’s going to be a real task to get everyone playing time, and ultimately, it may come down to who’s hitting.”
There should be no shortage of runs with Hannum, Sprinkles, Prevost, Hennessy, Connelly, Travis Ealy, Jory Mendes and Toby O’Brien leading the attack.
“Offensively, we have the people who can hit for power, the people who can hit for average and we have speed,” Sprinkles said.
The off-season commitment to baseball by Prevost and Hennessy, to name a few, has touched the complimentary side of Russell.
“T.J.’s a kid who has been working out with us since Christmas who’s taken huge steps,” Russell said. “I couldn’t be prouder than anyone else on the team right now. T.J.’s performing at a level that shows how hard he’s working.
“Mike’s a kid who has worked hard on his hitting the last couple of years and he’s fundamentally as sound of a hitter as I’ve seen at this level. He hits for power, he’s capable of hitting for average and always has a purpose when he steps up to the plate.”
South Tahoe’s home opener isn’t until March 25, giving players hope that they can get in a few more games at Todd Fields than the two weeks of games winter-minded Mother Nature afforded them last year.
“I was hoping a tropical rainstorm would heat things up and wash all the snow away, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen anytime soon,” Sprinkles said.” But I can hope.”
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