N.D. state Class A baseball tournament: Firebirds meeting their expectations

DEVILS LAKE -- With five starters back from a team that played in the 2008 North Dakota Class A high school baseball tournament, Devils Lake entered the season with high expectations.

DEVILS LAKE -- With five starters back from a team that played in the 2008 North Dakota Class A high school baseball tournament, Devils Lake entered the season with high expectations.

However, all that experience added up to just six wins in the Firebirds' first 14 games.

"A losing record certainly wasn't a part of the plan,'' Firebirds senior Ethan Kleinknecht said. "We expected some great things coming into the year.

"But we hadn't played the weaker teams in the conference yet. We knew we could regroup as far as getting back to a winning record.''

Not only have the Firebirds pushed their record over the .500 mark, they're also headed back to the state tournament. Devils Lake takes the No. 4 East Region seed into the state quarterfinals Thursday in Jamestown.


Kleinknecht, David Gutschmidt, Devin Gathman, Jared Schmidt and Jared Swenseth, the top five hitters in Devils Lake's lineup, all are returning starters from a year ago. They've provided hitting as well as solid pitching depth.

But it took awhile for the Firebirds to get on track.

"It was frustrating,'' Devils Lake coach Jason Wandler said of the slow start. "We were losing games that I didn't think we should have been losing. There were several games where we had leads in the sixth and seventh innings, but our defense let us down. But we've worked out the kinks.''

In the current 6-1 run, Devils Lake has outscored its opponents 56-14. The lone loss was a 1-0 decision to West Fargo; only once in those seven games has Devils Lake allowed more than three runs, that in an 8-5 win against Wahpeton.

Wandler credits the late-season spurt to a different approach.

"We're getting better offensively, putting up seven, eight, nine hits a game,'' Wandler said. "When you do that, you're putting pressure on other teams and giving yourself a chance to score.

"Early in the season, we were thinking too much. In baseball, you don't want to overthink. It's see and react. Now the kids have gotten enough repetitions at bat and in game situations that they're finding a groove.''

The run heading into the state tournament is what Wandler had been anticipating all season.


"On paper, we felt this could be one of the best high school teams we've had here,'' Wandler said. "They're athletic, and it's the most talented group baseball-wise we've had since 2003. We had high expectations for them.''

Despite the early-season struggles, the expectations never changed.

"I don't think we were worried,'' Kleinknecht said. "We knew there were games we could win.''

DeVillers reports on sports. Reach him at (701) 780-1128; (800) 477-6572, ext. 128; or send e-mail to .

Devils Lake at a glance

Record: 12-9, fourth in East Region.

Coach: Jason Wandler.

Recent state tournament history: Devils Lake is making its second straight state appearance, finishing eighth last season.


Regular batting lineup: Ethan Kleinknecht (.288, 11 SBs), David Gutschmidt (.302), Devin Gathman (.317), Jared Schmidt (.255, 3 HRs, 19 RBIs), Jared Swenseth (.278, 15 RBIs), Cole Boehmer (.306, 2 HR, 12 RBIs), Matt Swanson (.238), Josh Janzen (.205), Beau Eriksson (.296).

Top pitchers: Kleinknecht (3-3, 0.41 ERA, team-high 36 Ks), Gathman (3-2, 1.00), Gutschmidt (2-1, 1.07), Janzen (1-2, 1.40).

Firebirds coach Wandler says: "Our pitching has been pretty solid. They're real consistent. And we've played good defense behind them. Offensively, we've done a good job of limiting our strikeouts and putting the ball in play. We have a few guys who can hit the long ball. But we rely more on manufacturing runs, using the sacrifice bunts and hit-and-run plays.''

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