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'This group has the best chemistry': Byron baseball having fun with high expectations

The Bears are off to a 14-0 start, utilizing a strong pitching staff and a WWE championship belt.

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Byron’s John Lutzi delivers a pitch during a Section 1AAA baseball championship doubleheader against Albert Lea on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at Athletic Field in Red Wing.
Traci Westscott / Post Bulletin
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The gimmicks sports teams have used to celebrate big moments or plays has increased in quantity over the years.

First was the turnover chain by the University of Miami football team and then others have followed like the home run chain Oklahoma State University softball busted out or the MVP chain the Miami Marlins used a couple of years ago.

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Yet, when Byron baseball captain Jake Isaak approached coach Ryan Hansen with an idea about giving a WWE championship belt to the MVP of each game, Hansen was initially hesitant.

“I’m kind of an old school guy,” Hansen said. “I don’t get into those award things. But I’ve learned as I’ve coached more and more to let the kids kind of come up with some ideas and run with it. … A few years ago I’d been like 'no way' because I would have thought it was a distraction.”

So far, it’s been anything but. In fact, Hansen admitted it’s been a real team-builder for a team that has the talent and experience to make a deep postseason run.

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“It’s been a lot of fun,” Bears captain John Lutzi said. “Everybody’s been striving for that belt.”

An argument could be made there isn’t a team in the area right now having more fun than the Bears.

Behind a pitching staff that has been as tough as nails, the Bears are 13-0 in the Hiawatha Valley League and 14-1 overall — suffering their first loss of the season to Winona on Thursday. Byron — ranked No. 5 in Class AAA by the Minnesota Baseball Coaches Association — has been paced by an arsenal of arms that allowed just 23 runs in 14 games before a 15-10 defeat to the Winhawks. Yet, they are still the only team in Section 1AAA to allow an average of under 2.5 runs per game. But as impressive as the Bears have been on the mound, it’s been that team-building and chemistry that has stood out the most for Hansen. As a matter of fact, it's the best he has seen during his four-year tenure.

“In all my years of coaching, this group has the best chemistry,” Hansen said. “Baseball is one of the true team sports where one guy can't run the whole show. You have superstars on the field but you also need superstars on the bench, and this entire roster — we have a lot of role players and they're all doing it very, very well. So even down to our managers, the load that they take off the coaching staff are the things they just own and show up and do.
"It’s a great team that owns their role.”

The players share the same sentiment as Hansen. They have their team dinners and love to golf as a group. Simply put, they just like being around each other.

“I feel this is the best team I’ve been a part of chemistry-wise,” pitcher and first baseman James Durst said. “We’re all there for each other. We’re all confident with each other and we all believe we can get the job done.”

Durst has been a big reason behind that.

After being used sparingly on the mound last season, Durst committed himself this past offseason with pitching coach John Mangouras to add to his repertoire of pitches with a slider, a cutter and a two-seamer. Those pitches have helped the Winona State University football commit been great this season. He oozes confidence every time he steps on the mound.

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“He looks like a totally new guy out there,” Lutzi said, “100% more confident than he ever has been. It's just overall great for the team when we have that confidence on the mound because we know we're going to get it done when he’s out there.”

That reflects in that WWE belt that is given to the MVP of each game, as voted by the senior captains. Durst is tied for the team lead with two “MVP” performances and arguably could have won it a third time after allowing just five hits in six shutout innings in a 4-0 victory against Stewartville on Monday.

With Lutzi already entrenched as the ace after a junior season that saw him go 7-1 with a 1.34 ERA, the development of Durst has given the Bears a lethal 1-2 punch on the mound.

Lourdes saw that first-hand when Durst and Lutzi combined to allow just one run on six hits in 11 innings to help lead the Bears to 2-1 and 8-0 wins in a span of three days. But it’s not just them.

The Bears have a number of guys, whether it be Quinten Holmes, Logan Marx or Jackson Schroeder, who can get the job done on the mound.

“It’s definitely great and encouraging to see Durst step up and take that role,” Hansen said. “But I mean, we can go down the list, all of our pitchers have gotten on the mound and honestly, they have done what we tell them to do, which is throw strikes and don't make it complicated. They're all doing that fantastically.”

Now the Bears are hoping it all translates to the program's first state trip since 2000. They were oh-so-close last season, finishing one win shy after falling to Albert Lea in Game 2 of the Section 1AAA championship. It still haunts them. But now it's time to make amends with a run this season.

"We have that chip on our shoulder from last year," Lutzi said. "We weren't always focused 100% of time. That's where we got those losses that we should have won.
"... On our board here in the dugout we have our goals for the season. At the top of the list is to be section champs and then going to be state champs too. We have the pieces to do it."

Related Topics: BYRONBASEBALLEXCLUSIVE
Alex VandenHouten has been a sports reporter at the Post Bulletin since Sept. 2021. He loves to go hiking, biking, snowshoeing and just simply being outdoors with his wife Olivia. Readers can reach Alex at avandenhouten@postbulletin.com.
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