The defending state champions in Class 1A baseball are looking for a repeat performance.
For the 2015 regular season, New Life Academy went 15-3 overall and 8-0 in conference play to take the Minnesota Christian Athletic Association crown. The Eagles started with a six-game winning streak. Six of their 15 victories were shutouts. They outscored opponents 197-39.
“It’s gone better than we expected,” coach Dave Darr said. “We’ve got so much talent this year. … It’s top to bottom. We don’t have to rely on two or three guys.”
New Life has played 12 or 13 guys deep, according to Darr, getting contributions from all of them. Some bench players might have gotten more playing time in the past. But there are only so many at-bats to go around. The Eagles also lost more than three games worth of innings this season because the 10-run mercy rule after five innings ended games early.
It’s a good problem to have on a team that graduated four seniors from the 2014 team. New Life, a private school in Woodbury, defeated New York Mills 5-4 in last year’s Class 1A title game.
The winning continued in the first game this season, a 21-4 victory over Providence Academy. It was a confidence booster for the younger players on the team, Darr said.
Before the season, senior Sam Horner was uncertain about how successful the Eagles would be. That doubt quickly evaporated.
“After even the first game, and I saw how guys were able to smack the ball around. … I knew we had the kind of team to have this kind of success again,” Horner said. “I was confident in them.”
That first game was all it took for Horner and some of his senior teammates to set their sights on a return to Target Field.
Horner, a pitcher and center fielder, and his older brother John combined their pitching efforts in last year’s state tournament. Now Sam has taken over his brother’s leadership role.
“I really have had to step up my responsibilities on this team,” Sam said. “It’s been special.”
One of the younger players coming up big offensively is pitcher/outfielder Henry George, a sophomore transfer. He’s near the top of the charts with a .596 batting average and .872 slugging percentage.
“It’s been a lot of fun playing with these guys this year,” George said. “Hopefully we keep on going.”
Senior Brady Gunderson is another transfer student who has put his bat to use for the Eagles. It’s been “awesome,” he said.
“I felt the need to step up a lot and lead the team,” said Gunderson, who carries a .538 average and a .750 slugging percentage.
The Eagles are good on the mound, too, with five or six players who Darr can count on to throw strikes.
Then there’s the solid defense behind them, making the difficult plays, Darr said.
Still, they’re a group that can be “loose and aloof” but still able to get the job done, Darr said.
“They have fun, but yet they can turn it on,” Darr said. “It baffles my mind. It’s just the personality of these guys.”
As for the team’s goal to return to state and win back-to-back titles, Horner said, “I have no doubt that we have the skill and the talent and the athleticism to do it.”
The Eagles just need to play their game and not take opponents lightly, he added.
“If we can get back there, it kind of solidifies the program here,” Darr said. “I like our chances. We’ve put ourselves in a good position.
“Now, it’s up to the kids.”