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Kris Hokenson and Weber Neels share a bond beyond baseball

The two Gophers baseball players have grown a brother-like relationship since their time together on the Northstar club team.
Image by Matt Krohn (courtesy)
The Gophers’ two standout sophomores look to build on strong freshmen seasons.

Two freshmen stood out among the rest at Minnesota last season, and their connection runs deeper than their graduating class.

Kris Hokenson and Weber Neels have played together since they were 11 years old, according to Neels. The pair played for NorthStar, a youth and high school club baseball team bringing together some of the best talent in the state, including teammate Drew Berkland.

As roommates, the two share more than just time together on the diamond. Neels said having someone he has grown up with, like Hokenson, made the transition to college baseball easier.

“Having somebody that I grew up with just allows for the team aspect to be a lot more easy,” Neels said. “Going into the locker room, we’ll walk together, we’ll talk about the days and then, on the way home, we’ll talk about how practice went.”

Neels added having known each other since they were 11, Hokenson understands his mental side more than his teammates at Minnesota.

Assistant coach Packy Casey said the best way to describe their bond is like a “brother relationship,” and they understand how to play with each other on the field.

The Gophers received impactful first seasons from the pair. Hokenson led the team with 33 walks in over 100 at-bats and a .421 on-base percentage. Neels led the team with a .452 slugging percentage, was second on the team with seven home runs and finished third in batting average, hitting .274.

Neels was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2023 and noted as a “Player to Watch” for the 2024 season.

“[Neels] had the best season from a power output standpoint of any true freshman since Luke Appert in, I think it was 2000,” Casey said. “That’s 23 years of freshman that you’d have to go back to that have hit the most home runs in John [Anderson’s] tenure.”

Casey said Neels brings more to the team than just power and physical attributes by also being a true leader.

Hokenson brings a different element to the team as a two-way player. After limited appearances on the mound a season ago, Hokenson will take a larger role in the staff this season, according to head coach John Anderson.

Anderson said Hokenson will step into a larger role on the mound this season due to Rooney’s injury.

“Hokenson’s going to be a two-way guy, right fielder, good hitter and defender,” Anderson said. “Because of Rooney’s loss, left-handed pitcher Hokenson’s probably going to be one of the guys we’re going to have to use in the bullpen a little bit more.”

Noah Rooney, who missed the last month of the season due to injury, experienced an arm issue a few weeks ago. Anderson said the team will look to rehab him but said it is a low probability Rooney will be back this season.

Casey said his philosophy has always been to recruit two-way guys because they are the best players on the field. In college, Hokenson has improved as a hitter in his two-strike approach, ability to hit a fastball and how he has shortened his stride, according to Casey.

Working with Casey reviewing film, Hokenson said he found out he is a visual learner.

“Me and [Casey] kind of learned that I am a visual learner and like the feel of things,” Hokenson said. “So mostly, he kind of works differently with people. So, with me, he’ll kind of take it slower and just kind of let me feel how it feels and see if I like it.”

Minnesota is a player development program and is using new methods to learn as much as they can about their athletes, according to Casey.

One method gaining traction in the college baseball community is motor preferences. It starts with players learning proper posture, how to walk efficiently and how to improve oxygen intake.

“We’re one of the only, I want to say probably two, maybe three college baseball programs at the absolute most right now that have actually been trained into this,” Casey said.

The new technologies and development methods Minnesota utilizes allow them to grow MLB-caliber talent every season through years of development.

Hokenson and Neels look to take what they have learned about their bodies and styles of play to take that next step in year two.

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  • Deontez
    Feb 14, 2024 at 8:11 pm

    Very well written enjoyed a lot!