A fresh mentality was exactly what the Woodbury baseball team needed in 2014.
The Royals are off to their best start in recent years: an 8-2 record through last Thursday that includes one-run victories against Suburban East Conference powerhouses East Ridge and Cretin-Derham Hall.
To coach Kevin McDermott, the improvements are a product of players showing more leadership, chemistry and mental toughness than his squads that finished 11-10 last season and 9-13 in 2012.
“We play with a ton of energy, a ton of positive energy,” he said. “Guys play for each other, not for themselves … and that’s been different than in years past.”
This year, the Royals’ leaders have made a point to be inclusive of younger players.
“When we were younger, we would feel uncomfortable,” senior closer Nick Yan said. “We wanted to change that.”
The Royals are a veteran group, but youth has played a part in their success. They start at least three sophomores each game — players who McDermott said are leaders just as much as the seniors.
Woodbury’s newfound chemistry came after the team spent a week in late March training and bonding in Florida. The team takes the trip every two years, but this year’s trip had special benefits.
“That trip allowed us to become friends more than teammates,” senior shortstop Nick McLaughlin said, “and that really helps on the baseball field because we can trust each other.”
The Royals also spent a week on mental toughness training, which included watching videos and discussing the mental part of the game. To McDermott, mental toughness means playing with a short memory and not thinking too far ahead.
“We realize that we’re not going to be perfect,” McDermott said. “And when we make mistakes, we let it go and move on to the next pitch. And because the game’s so negative, that’s a huge piece to be able to release that negativity.”
McDermott attributed his team’s 3-1 record in one-run games to its mental toughness. He said he told people before the season that Woodbury’s success in one-run games would be the difference between a good record and one below .500.
A deep pitching staff also has made a difference. The Royals’ team ERA through April was 1.87, led by senior Ben Meyer’s 0.70 mark. Meyer pitched seven innings in the Royals’ 3-2 victory over Cretin-Derham Hall on April 17, and he pitched eight in their 3-2 victory against Mounds View a week later.
Those victories were followed by a 3-1 loss on April 25 to White Bear Lake — a 1-5 team at the time — that knocked the Royals down a bit.
If their improved mentality is an indicator, they’ll be back. On May 1 Meyer just threw a complete game no-hitter with seven strikeouts against seventh-ranked East Ridge in a 3-0 victory.
“We all seem to have the same approach and mentality, and that’s to just focus on the next play, the next pitch and the next at-bat, no matter what has happened in the past at-bats,” McLaughlin said. “It seems to be working so far.”
Charlie Armitz is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.