When the Mounds View baseball team entered the state tournament last June, Henry DeCaster sat waiting for his chance to pitch.
The opportunity never came.
Sam Hentges and Kellen Rholl gave up just two runs combined in three tournament games, powering the Mustangs to their second consecutive state championship. This season, with Hentges and Rholl playing elsewhere, DeCaster will have to shoulder a heavy load as the top pitcher of a team searching for its third consecutive title.
“This year it’s going to be really a good thing for myself to have a leadership role on this team. The past few years I’ve always been the young guy,” DeCaster said. “Serving as a good example for all these other guys is going to be huge.”
Two-time defending champion Mounds View, which prides itself on pitching and defense, has a void to fill on the mound. Hentges was dominant last season and is now playing in the Cleveland Indians’ farm system. Rholl is at Division II Angelo State in Texas.
“Pitching and defense win games,” senior Charlie Callahan said. “If we can get our pitching down, if we can make plays on defense, I think we have the offense to have success.”
DeCaster knew he would play a large role this year and used the offseason to grow as a pitcher. The lanky lefthander took to the mound in July for the Minnesota Blizzard traveling baseball team in a Georgia tournament. DeCaster faced top-level competition, where hitters took advantage of his fastball at first.
“They hit just absolute rockets off me,” DeCaster said. “You see a lot of really good hitters when you’re down in Georgia and all these other elite tournaments. … You have to go out there and give them your best pitch, and if you don’t they’re going to make you pay for it.”
With a shaky start behind him, DeCaster adjusted as the tournament progressed. When the senior returned to Minnesota, he was a regular in the weight room.
“He spent some time this offseason working on just conditioning and strength training,” coach Mark Downey said. “I think that’s probably helped him as much as anything.”
DeCaster doesn’t have the strongest arm and said his fastball is in the mid-80s. But he does seem to have great command of the strike zone.
“My best attribute or ability is being able to locate wherever I want,” DeCaster said. “I’ve been really refining my game, so I start out with an inside fastball and then I can come back with a curveball for a strike or a changeup for a strike in the zone.”
Jeremiah Bonde will be Mounds View’s No. 2 starting pitcher behind DeCaster this season. The righthanded senior made the most appearances of anyone on the team as a closer last season. He said that experience helped him mature and understand what it’s like to work when a big game is on the line. But now Bonde is going to have to start games, as a major player on a pitching staff that looks to produce as a committee.
“Over these last years we’ve had just one absolute stud [pitcher],” senior Alec Abercrombie said. “As a staff as a whole, there’s guy after guy that can come at it, top varsity line pitchers.”
DeCaster, Bonde, and the rest of Mounds View’s pitching staff appear more than willing to step into the void Hentges and Rholl left behind.
“Sam and Kellen certainly set the bar pretty high,” Downey said. “I think people are excited about stepping up and meeting those expectations. Whether we can or we can’t, we’ll find out.”
Jack Satzinger is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.