In 2016, in the best possible display of the vagaries of Mississippi 8 baseball, the Vikings finished 2-11 in league play, and then turned around and won the Section 7AAA championship to advance to the state tournament.
The reason for the disparity is that half of the M8 lineup is in Class AAAA, while North Branch is in Class AAA, leaving the Vikings, and other smaller M8 teams like Princeton and Chisago Lakes, with the unenviable requirement of facing off against much larger schools for the greater part of their regular season schedule, before being allowed to match up with similar-sized schools in the sectional tournament.
“We struggled quite a bit in our conference, but toward the end we came together as a team and saw some improved performances,” head coach Steve Christensen said.
Christensen will not concede that his smaller player pool will be a detriment, however.
“The size of the school doesn’t matter as far as the quality of the players you can have,” Christensen said. “We compete well against the bigger schools.”
The Vikings return three seniors from the state squad in first baseman Ryan Bikrit, catcher Nick Fairbanks and outfielder Jared Kozar.
“Those guys got quite a bit of playing time last year,” Christensen said.
The rest of the roster is filled out mainly with juniors.
“The juniors have had some opportunities in the past, and they’re going to get some new opportunities as well, so it’s kind of a good balance,” Christensen said.
Juniors Dillyn Negley, Aaron Robillard, Dylan Ramberg and Brady Brodin have made starts on the mound so far, leading the Vikings to a 2-3 record. Negley, Ramberg and Brodin have started in the infield on their non-pitching days. Brodin is batting .364, Negley .353 and Ramberg .308.
“We have a ton of guys who play second, short, and third, and they all pitch, so it’s easy to move them around,” Christensen said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
The team’s lone sophomore, infielder Clint Mattson, was batting .333 at press time.
Junior Zack Pilz starts in the outfield and can also pitch; junior Dawson Linkert is also an outfield regular. Pilz is the team’s top batter in the early going with a .500 average.
Chisago Lakes was the No. 1 seed in Section 7AAA before the Vikings stole the show, and the Wildcats figure to be a tough team again: they defeated North Branch 10-0 in the season opener April 4. Hibbing, which North Branch beat twice to claim the state berth, will also bring a strong team to the sectional tournament.
“We have the experience at the plate and in the field,” Christensen said. “Our overall expectation is to always get better as a team. We may win, we may lose, but we always want to get better.”
The Vikings will visit Rogers April 20.