Gophers working during summer to erase deficiencies

by Brian Hall

Sam Steidl was patrolling centerfield for the Alexandria Beetles on Wednesday night when a hard line drive was hit his way.

The ball screamed toward the gap, but Steidl dove to snare the line drive while doing a faceplant on the freshly cut grass.

The catch saved the inning and the game for the Beetles as they eventually beat the St. Cloud River Bats 5-4 in 10 innings.

Known for swinging a hot bat, Minnesota center fielder Steidl is playing in the Northwoods League to improve other facets of his game-like defense.

“With Sam, I saw some things you see in younger outfielders, where he made mistakes in some of the angles he took to the ball and some of the decisions he made,” Gophers baseball coach John Anderson said. “So he is trying to improve himself defensively.”

Steidl is one of two Gophers currently playing in the Northwoods League – outfielder Scott Howard plays for St. Cloud.

The league is a collection of collegiate athletes from across the nation looking to receive extra playing time during the summer and work on key components of their games.

The Northwoods League is comprised of eight teams from cities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The league is similar to professional minor league baseball, using wood bats and playing a 64-game schedule in 68 days.

“They are able to play a lot of games and get exposure to the wood bats,” Scott Schriener, general manager of the River Bats, said. “They get a true minor league experience without ruining their college eligibility.”

Anderson sees the league as a valuable tool in the development of his players. Minnesota has sent many players to the league, including last year’s league MVP, Josh Holthaus.

“Obviously, in this part of the country one of the weaknesses we have is players don’t have the opportunity to play as much as the people in the sun belt,” Anderson said. “So the summer experience gives them an opportunity to make up some ground in that area.”

Howard is hoping to use the league to regain his feel for the game. Slowly recovering, he is still affected by soreness after having surgery last summer to remove bone spurs from his elbow.

Last year Howard hit only .269 after two consecutive .300 seasons.

“Due to the injury, at the beginning of the Gopher season last year I was really slow,” Howard said. “I was behind everybody because I hadn’t played all summer. I hope getting a lot of at-bats this summer will help me get off to a good start next year.”

After redshirting for the 2000 season, Steidl had a spectacular first year, hitting .401 with 32 RBI and 14 stolen bases and helping Minnesota win the Big Ten Tournament and receive an NCAA invitation.

Soon afterward the accolades began to roll in for Steidl as he was named to three separate freshman All-American teams.

“It is a great honor,” Steidl said. “I wasn’t expecting any of that heading into the season, but the coaches gave me opportunities.”

Working to erase deficiencies in their games, they are committed to improving themselves and advancing Minnesota farther in the NCAA tournament.

“I want to win the Big Ten championship and get to Omaha (site of the NCAA championship),” Steidl said. “Those are the two biggest goals for next year.”