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Thunder baseball team battles through challenges

Weather and low numbers combined to wreak havoc on the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College baseball team’s season.

The Thunder was knocked out of the MCAC’s postseason tournament last week and finished its season 0-16. The 11 players on the roster at the end of the year got plenty of playing time and Coach Cal Barr described the season as a positive experience even though the team failed to win a game.

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“We didn’t get in half our games because of the weather and a lot of teams, college and high school alike, were like that,” Barr said. “Most teams lost 12 to 16 games off their normal schedule, and we had teams in our league playing home games in Fargo and Brainerd.”

The Thunder traveled as far away as Grand Rapids and Pengilly to play “home” games this spring.

“We had one real home date, at the high school field,” Barr said. “We tried Barnum, Cloquet, Duluth East, Spooner and Moose Lake for other sites.  Two years ago we played on St. Patrick’s Day and it was 65 degrees.”

Practice was also difficult, for obvious reasons.

“We practiced in the school gym and at the soccer complex across the street from the college where we could get something close to a full sized infield,” Barr said. “Bounces when you hit balls off cracks on concrete aren’t very good.”

The other issue that affected the team was experience. Barr said there was only one player on the roster who was playing competitive baseball even two summers ago.

“We had to teach the game,” Barr said. “We had a number of players who were relatively inexperienced baseball-wise, a couple of football guys and some with a limited baseball background in high school. We were working on trying to improve skills.”

That meant that the roster, and sometimes the abilities of the players on it, were tested to the limit.

“We ended the season playing six games in three days,” Barr said. “Our last day we played two nine-inning games, which is hard on arms. So we had to shift players between positions that some of them had not played and that was challenging.”

Still, Barr pointed to first-year players Destry Naylor (.412 batting average) and Ethan Bell (.310 batting average), both from Jacksonville, Fla., as the team’s top performers.

“They both have background and high baseball IQ,” Barr said. “You could play them anywhere on the field.”

Due to the issues surrounding the team, Barr said the goals were small.

“Having quality at-bats, trying to win innings,” he said. “Most of the teams we played had either deeper benches or more talented players so we tried not to focus on winning but development and growth.”

That also included instilling a team concept.

“The whole approach is to teach skills for living well as well as baseball skills,” he said. “In baseball there is a thing called a sacrifice and it means giving yourself up for the team. We taught those concepts and helped kids know what their reason is for being on the team. It’s about building relationships and whole people. From that standpoint, we did well.”

The team finished its third season in the MCAC but Barr was informed by Athletic Director Keith Turner that he won’t be back for a fourth season next year as coach.

“Keith said he was sorry,” Barr said. “I’m sorry, too.”