Sophomores Brett Feller and Mason Stroh, with no prior varsity or JV experience, pitch Red River baseball to state
The Roughriders will take on West Region tournament champion Bismarck Legacy at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the North Dakota state quarterfinals.
Mark Varriano wasn't sure how he was going to piece together his pitching staff this season.
The Grand Forks Red River baseball manager knew senior Ryan Muizelaar would be able to give him some innings, but that meant taking Muizelaar away from shortstop. Beyond that, it was all question marks.
"When we started practice, we had no idea what we had for pitching," Varriano said. "We needed to find extra arms. They fell into our laps, thank goodness."
Sophomores Brett Feller and Mason Stroh, who hadn't played an inning of either varsity or junior varsity baseball for Red River, surprisingly emerged as the top two pitchers for the North Dakota state tournament-bound Roughriders.
Feller pitched 37.2 innings this season. Stroh pitched 28. Nobody else outside of Muizelaar (13.1 innings) pitched more than five.
Feller and Stroh combined to account for 68.8 percent of the team's innings.
"As a sophomore coming in, I really didn't have any expectations," said Feller, who played for the Grand Forks Outlaws last summer. "I was just going to try out and whatever team I made (varsity or junior varsity), I wanted to play the best I could. When I made varsity, I still didn't have many expectations for what I'd be doing. It just feels great to get on the field and on the mound and help the team out."
Feller and Stroh helped the Roughriders reach the state tournament by winning back-to-back loser-out games last weekend in West Fargo. On Friday, Stroh pitched Red River to a 4-1 win over Fargo South. On Saturday, Feller (five innings) and Muizelaar (two innings) pitched the Roughriders to a 5-2 win over Fargo Davies, which tied for the East Region's regular-season title with a 9-1 record.
Not surprisingly, Feller will be on the mound when Red River takes on West Region tournament champion Bismarck Legacy at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Mandan in the state quarterfinals.
"It worked out great to win the most recent game and have that momentum going into state," Feller said.
Feller's strength is his control. In 37.2 innings this season, he's issued only three walks.
"He's always around the dish," Varriano said. "He makes people put the ball in play. He throws strikes. When he throws, he never puts our defense in a bad position. There's only one play that's indefensible and that's a walk. We tell our pitchers to pitch to contact and let the guys play behind them. He definitely does that."
Feller, who has a 1.79 earned-run average and strikes out more than 10 hitters per walk, relies on his fastball, changeup and curveball.
"He mixes his pitches pretty good," Varriano said. "He's still learning how to do that -- move up and down, in and out."
Feller will have to be on his game Thursday. Bismarck Legacy's bats have been hot lately, scoring 30 runs in three games at the West Region tournament, including 10 against the West's regular-season champion, Dickinson.
Varriano said he doesn't know much about Legacy, which will be making its first state tournament appearance.
"The problem with the West is we haven't seen anybody yet," Varriano said. "Looking at scores, they can put runs up quickly. What we have to do is not hurt ourselves with errors and walks. If we get people on base, we have to get them across. We left 10 people on base against Davies on Saturday and in pretty crucial positions, too."
But the Roughriders won the games, anyway, because of pitching and defense.
"We didn't commit the error that really pushes people across," Varriano said. "(Our pitchers) didn't walk anybody. We weren't forced to make an unbelievable play, just routine plays."
Varriano hopes this is just the start for Feller and Stroh.
"They're only going to get bigger and stronger," Varriano said. "Hopefully, they keep on progressing."
N.D. state baseball tournament
Where: Memorial Field, Mandan.
Quarterfinal matchups: Fargo Shanley (East No. 1) vs. Bismarck Century (West No. 4), 11:30 a.m.; Dickinson (West No. 2) vs. West Fargo (East No. 3), 1:30 p.m.; West Fargo Sheyenne (East No. 2) vs. Minot (West No. 3), 4:30 p.m.; GF Red River (East No. 4) vs. Bismarck Legacy (West No. 1), 6:30 p.m.
Red River's top hitters: Sr. OF/2B Ross Meyer .462, 14 RBIs; sr. SS Ryan Muizelaar .396, 2 HRs, 11 RBIs; sr. 3B Brady Lewandowski .357, 10 RBIs, sr. OF Justin Wasvick .314, soph. 2B/SS Gunnar Heuchert .294, 10 RBIs.
Red River's top pitchers: Soph. Brett Feller 37.2 IP, 1.79 ERA, 31 Ks; soph. Mason Stroh 28 IP, 2.15 ERA, 28 Ks; Muizelaar 13.1 IP, 0.56 ERA.