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LEGION BASEBALL: Deep pitching staff leads Spoilers

When Jaime Villarreal completed his eligibility after last season, the Grafton American Legion baseball program lost its ace.

“Jaime was one of our best pitchers, not just in the years I’ve been coaching but in the history of our program,” said Chad Kliniske, in his 16th season as the Spoilers’ Legion coach.

Minus Villarreal, the Spoilers have relied more on quality pitching depth. And the results have been good — after finishing second in the East Region tournament this weekend, Grafton takes a 30-22 record to the North Dakota Class A state tournament, which begins Wednesday in Wahpeton.

“I like the pitching depth we have,” Kliniske said. “One dominant guy like Jaime could win you a few games at a state tournament. But we’ve probably got 6 to 7 guys who are capable of going out and winning games for us.

“I don’t know of anybody else in the state (in Class A) who has five pitchers as good as our top five. Any of these guys would be the No. 2 or No. 3 pitcher on about any team. We don’t have that one dominant guy. But all our guys have pitched well.”

The top five for the Spoilers have been Zak Hernandez (7-4, 1.93 earned run average), Jaron Lunday (6-1, 2.01), Adam Mach (5-2, 2.36), Hunter Baldwin (6-1, 2.63) and Cody Kingsbury (1-3, 3.73). Kliniske said the depth is better than a year ago, when the Spoilers won the Class B state Legion title.

“Hunter is as close to dominant as any of our pitchers,” Kliniske said. “He’s been our go-to guy.”

That depth has come up big in tournaments in each of the past two weeks.

This past weekend, after losing in the opening round of the Class A East Region tournament, Grafton came back to win four straight to finish second.

The previous week, Grafton was runner-up in the North Dakota Senior Babe Ruth tournament, winning three straight in the loser-out round before falling 5-4 in eight innings to the Fargo Jets in the title game.

“We do have some arms that are getting tired,” Kliniske said. “But we have a lot of kids who can pitch.

“The kids are getting used to having to come through the losers’ bracket. That situation doesn’t scare them. We just have to finish it.”

The offense is led by the top of the order — Brett Longtin (.319, 30 stolen bases), Jess Suda (.436), Hernandez (.285, 4 home runs, 23 RBI), Garek Droog (.391, 2 HR, 26 RBI) and Baldwin (.438, 2 HR, 29 RBI).

Success is coming with a young roster. With Braden Campbell being the lone player who finishes his eligibility this season, this is one of the youngest Spoiler teams Kliniske has coached.

But youth doesn’t mean inexperience when it comes to the Spoilers.

“We have a lot of experience for being as young as we are,” Kliniske said. “We only graduated four starters from last year’s team. A lot of these kids have played in the state high school tournament. They won the state (Class B) Babe Ruth tournament. They’ve played in and won a lot of big-game experiences.”