U baseball faces three top teams in Dairy Queen Classic

Brian Stensaas

With a new title sponsor in tow, Minnesota’s baseball team is hoping the name change of the annual spring tournament at the Metrodome will lead to more positive results. But it won’t be easy.

The Gophers welcome 2002 College World Series participants Notre Dame and Nebraska in addition to No. 7 Wake Forest to the Dome this weekend for the Dairy Queen (formerly Hormel) Classic.

Though Minnesota started last year’s home campaign with a 1-2 showing at the tournament, it went on to win the Big Ten regular season title. However, the team was eliminated from the Big Ten tournament by Ohio State and was not selected for the NCAA field.

The bad taste from being skipped over is still with the team.

“They’re anxious to show people that this team is better than some gave them credit for at the end of last year,” said coach John Anderson, the reigning Big Ten coach of the year. “They’re hungry, but if they want to improve their chances they have to win more at the beginning.”

The Gophers open up play in the Classic on Friday night with a daunting task. The Deacons come to town returning all nine starters from last season, where they were ranked as high as second nationally.

Wake Forest is led by junior pitcher Kyle Sleeth, who went 14-0 last season with a 2.97 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 113 innings before representing Team USA over the summer.

Sleeth is 2-0 with an ERA of zero so far this season and will start Friday night against Minnesota.

Minnesota pitcher C.J. Woodrow, who will start Saturday, is ready for the challenge of tougher teams and is simply sticking to the basics.

“Throw strikes, play defense and get timely hits,” he said. “We like playing harder teams. It makes you see just how good you really are.”

Jay Gagner will start Friday for Minnesota.

Saturday afternoon, the Gophers play host to No. 14 Notre Dame.

Winning has been the name of the game in South Bend of late, earning a trip to the College World Series last season for the first time since 1957 with a dramatic Super-Regional series win over top-ranked Florida State.

Things don’t get much easier on Sunday with the Gophers and No. 16 Nebraska rounding out the tournament with a mid-afternoon tilt.

The Cornhuskers bring Jeff Liese into the mix, fresh off his 2002 campaign which included a .371 average, 51 RBIs and 25 stolen bases.

Anderson has yet to decide who will take the mound for the Gophers on Sunday.

The motto in Minnesota’s camp so far this season has been stressing defense.

With the Metrodome’s lightning-fast artificial turf, off-white roof and three of the top teams in the nation all combined together, sound play won’t be easy.

But then, no one said it was going to be.

“We walk into every day just wanting to improve,” said defending Big Ten batting champion Scott Welch. “The Dome’s like playing in a parking lot. But we get to practice there and play a lot, so we know we can play there. It’s a high level of competition, but we’re excited.”

Bunts

ï Anderson said he plans on using up to nine pitchers over the weekend. All are still subject to a pitch count on the mound, which Anderson said will be between 70-80 per starter.

ï Fox Sports Net North will

televise Minnesota’s game against Notre Dame on Saturday.

ï KCCO (950 AM) has agreed to broadcast 31 Minnesota baseball games this season. The first KCCO airing is scheduled for Saturday’s game with Notre Dame. Sunday’s game with Nebraska will also be broadcast.

From there, KCCO will air at least two games from each of the eight Big Ten series, in addition to the April 30 game against the Cornhuskers.

Brian Stensaas welcomes comments at [email protected]