Cougars back for another crack

ZUMBROTA — Chuck Ohm never had a favorite sport when he was in high school at Elgin-Millville back in the early 1990s.

He had three — football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring.

"My feeling was whatever season it is currently, that’s what my favorite sport is," said Ohm, 36, who kept on playing football and baseball throughout college at St. Olaf University.

In that way it’s easy for Ohm to respect and relate to a bunch of players on his 2011 Zumbrota-Mazeppa baseball team, a veteran group that could make the Cougars the team to beat this season in the Hiawatha Valley League and Section 1AA.

Seven starters are back from a Z-M team that started out 14-2 last season but lost five of its last six games to finish 15-7, with a second-round exit in the subsection tournament.


"There are five (seniors) who are three-sport athletes and they’ve been very important to all the sports here at Z-M," Ohm said, reluctant to label anyone a baseball player at heart.

Baseball team tri-captains Cody Lodermeier, Ryan Paukert and Josh Shirley are among the versatile set, along with seniors Decker Starr and Bryan Hinrichs.

They helped the Z-M football team to the Section 1AA championship game in the fall, and were also on the Cougars basketball team that won 19 games.

"I think these guys are just athletes; they love what they do, whatever season it is," said Ohm. "In a small school we need kids to be three-sports athletes and not specialize, and these guys have been great. You don’t see that too much these days."

Winning tradition

Ohm has built Z-M baseball into a consistent winner since taking over the program in 2003, picking up his 100th win early last year in his seventh season.

The Cougars have averaged 18 wins over the last four seasons and the aforementioned group has had a lot to do with the success.

Z-M has proven pop returning to its batting lineup, led by Lodermeier, Paukert, Shirley and Starr, who all hit over .340 last season. They led an offense that averaged 7.5 runs per game.


But it’s the Cougars’ pitching potential that has Ohm even more excited.

Lodermeier, the ace last season with a 8-1 record and 1.96 ERA, will anchor a stable of five or six good arms, Ohm said. Paukert, Starr and Hinrichs each had 2-1 records on the mound last season.

"It always starts on the mound, and we’ve got options there," Ohm said. "We’ve got guys who have the skills to pitch and who want to pitch."

Shirley, the returning catcher, said he’s got confidence in whoever is on the mound.

"Cody is going to be our main guy; he throws pretty hard and he’s got good stuff," Shirley said. "All of our guys throw strikes and that should make my job easier."

Better finish in store?

Despite Z-M’s success in recent regular seasons, the postseason hasn’t been as kind. The Cougars were the No. 1 seed in three of the last four seasons but didn’t make it out of the 1AA West subsection.

"Actually its been pretty frustrating; we haven’t done anything in the playoffs," said Lodermeier, a fourth-year varsity player along with Paukert. Shirley, Starr and senior infielder Erik Krueger are third-year starters.


"When you’re the top seed, everyone you play is jacked up to play you, and I think we have been caught off guard," Lodermeier said.

The Cougars were cruising last year until they crossed paths with Pine Island. The Panthers swept a doubleheader from Z-M that decided the HVL Blue Division title, and a week later P.I. ended Z-M's season 8-4 in the second round of the single-elimination subsection tourney.

"We’ve had some good teams but I don’t think we’ve been playing our best baseball in late May, and we‘ve been beaten by teams that just played better," Ohm said. "It comes back to the consistency thing."

Lodermeier and Shirley sound guardedly optimistic about this season. The seniors realize this is their last chance to realize their baseball potential.

"I think we’ve got a shot at being a good team, if everyone works hard," said Lodermeier, who will play football at RCTC in the fall, but isn’t planning on playing college baseball.

"We haven’t really talked about goals, but I know we’re all thinking we want to win the conference, make it out of the subsection, and maybe make a run at state," Shirley said.

"Those are pretty lofty things, but that’s what we hope to achieve."

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