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PROVEN ACES: Owatonna boasts deep stable of players, looks to turn things around as season kicks into gear

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Matt Simon

Matt Simon is part of a traditional group of veterans who will be returning this summer for the Owatonna Aces. The team has more than 20 players listed on its roster as it enters the heart of the season. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

The results have been a mixed bag thus far, but one thing is for sure, the Aces amateur baseball team has depth.

Entering the heart of the season with more than 20 players listed on the official roster, Owatonna has stitched together a 3-6 record entering this weekend’s annual tournament in Gaylord, Minn. After starting the season 3-1, the Aces have lost five consecutive games by an average score of 10-2.

It’s still early, though, and the team has plenty of time to turn things around as the schedule heats up and players commit to the long-haul of the season that can easily seep into August with a decent postseason run.

This summer’s team will feature a familiar cast of players as long-time veterans Benji Hager, Brian Simon, Brandon Wolf, Matt Simon, Cody Johnson, Mike Randall and Quinn Christenson all return in a variety of capacities.

Hager, who will see most of his action in right field, is off to a strong start and leads the team in at-bats with 21 through nine games and has reached base at a 33-percent clip while posting a .286 batting average.

Brian Simon, who will once again serve as the team’s player-manager, has ripped six hits in 18 at-bats thus far (.333 average) and is tied for the team-lead in doubles with two.

Wolf’s reliable rubber arm has once again been on display through the first third of the season as he’s already racked up a team-high 20 innings and 23 strikeouts. He began the season with a bang, tossing a no-hitter against Eagle Lake on May 23 in Owatonna’s 8-1 non-league victory.

Matt Simon will retain his position at first base and anchor the lineup at the cleanup spot. In 13 at-bats, he’s already gone deep twice and driven in five runs. He’s second on the team with a .412 on-base percentage and has gone down on strikes just once in more than 20 plate-appearances so far this summer.

Randall, a catcher who missed most of last season with a broken bone in his hand, has started the season 3-for-11 while Christenson has yet to play. Johnson is currently second on the team in innings-pitched (7 2/3) and has fashioned a solid 3.58 ERA to go with five strikeouts and four walks.

Current Saint Mary’s University pitcher, and 2017 Owatonna High School graduate, Kodey Kiel is back for his third season with the Aces and will play a key part in the team’s success as a middle-of-the-lineup bat and relief pitcher. It’s unclear how much time he will see on the mound this summer, but as a sophomore this past spring at SMU, he racked up 11 2/3 innings and led the Cardinals in ERA at 0.77, surrendering just one earned-run all season while striking out 12 batters. Kiel didn’t see much action at the plate for SMU, but he’s already slugged one home run and driven in five runs this summer. He has yet to pitch for the Aces in 2019.

With Dexter Leer graduating from college this past May and serving only as a part-time player moving forward, rookie Noah Budach will take the baton at shortstop. He’s already drawn a team-high five walks and produced a .412 OBP. He has just three hits thus far, but has driven in three runs.

Recent Valley City State University graduate, Grant Wehseler, returns as a part-time player and will have a major impact on the team when he’s available to play. He’s seen action in just two games thus far, but has driven in three runs and gone 3-for-8 at the plate with two doubles.

Johnny White, Mike Zappa, Dawson Leer, Tyler Smith and Dexter Leer have all seen limited action thus far and will add depth to a variety of positions. White will see most of his action in left field while Zappa, Dawson Leer, Smith and Dexter Leer will play on the infield. Travis Hilstad — who sat out last season — has also seen action in 2019, collecting one hit in seven at-bats.

Ryan Stieskal held Janesville to two runs in seven innings in his only start this summer and is 1-0 on the early campaign. He logged a ton of innings last year and will once again be a regular in the starting rotation.

Recent Owatonna High School graduates Ben Zappa and Casey Cumberland will add depth to the lineup along with 2018 Blooming Prairie graduate, Bradley Staska.

A work in progress

Much of Owatonna’s recent struggles have been due to a lack of consistency on defense. The team has surrendered 11 unearned runs and committed more than a dozen errors in nine games. All four pitchers that have seen action have been tagged with at least two unearned runs, but, again, there’s still plenty of time to shore things up. Not counting the weekend tournament, Owatonna 13 games remaining, nine of which will be at home.

Twin Rivers update

The Twin Rivers League has added Austin to the mix this summer and so far the Greyhounds are 5-0 overall and 3-0 in league play. Winona technically sits in second at 2-2 while the Rochester Roadrunners are the only other team with multiple league wins at 3-4.

Owatonna is 1-1 and will play its next Twin Rivers game on June 19 at home against Dodge County at 7:30 p.m.

Reach sports editor Jon Weisbrod at 444-2375, or follow him on @OPPJonW

Award-winning Sports Editor for the Owatonna People's Press, Weisbrod has worked in daily newspapers his entire career. He writes a regular column called Beyond the Box that delves into local, regional and national sports storylines.

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