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Tom Mix, Published August 08 2012

West Fargo Patriots come of age

West Fargo

Players on the West Fargo American Legion baseball team have become a close-knit bunch over the years. Most of the team’s players have been playing summer ball together since they were eight years old.

A core group of nine players – Landon Uetz, Tucker Bucholz, Andy Young, Chance Bitzer, Brock Evenson, Tanner Dahl, Jordan Rheault, Zach Steckler and Ben Huber – have all come of age in the West Fargo baseball program.

That group of players won three North Dakota Cal Ripken state championships, and were key members on three teams that qualified for the Babe Ruth World Series in 2007, 2008 and 2009 as 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds.

Today, the group’s baseball journey comes full circle when West Fargo plays Edina (Minn.) at 5 p.m. in the first round of the Central Plains Division I Regional tournament at Astoria Field in Dickinson, N.D.

“We have been playing with each other forever it seems like,” said Young, who has committed to play baseball at Jamestown College. “We had success at the younger ages and I guess people think as we get a little older and play better competition, our success would fade a little, but we have kept winning. It is fun to keep winning with the same group of guys at different levels.”

Jeff Young – Andy Young’s father – along with Todd Rheault and Gerald Urlaub coached the Babe Ruth World Series teams that went 1-3 each year.

“They knew what it took to win when they got older,” Todd Rheault said. “To have the success both as young and old – I don’t know if that has happened in North Dakota very often.”

When you factor in every summer season since they were 10-year-old Cal Ripken players and their high school season records, the core group sports an impressive 407-138 won-loss record.

“We have played a lot of baseball together,” said Bucholz, who is committed to play baseball at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn. “We have played in a lot of regionals and we have seen a lot of teams from different parts of the country. Playing those other teams is a lot more fun than playing teams in your own state … It is a different kind of baseball.”

On top of winning 75 percent of their games, the core group has played games in nine different states and played against teams from 24 different states.

West Fargo is a well-traveled and well-seasoned team, but will be making their American Legion regional debuts today.

“We have faced everyone at the state level and we have faced everyone at the regional level too,” said Dahl, who is committed to play baseball at North Dakota State next year. “We have played a few of the teams that going to be in this tournament. We know what the competition is and we know we can play with everybody there … We have done it before, so I don’t think the pressure will be on us, it will be on the other teams.”

This is the final Legion season for Dahl, Bucholz, Steckler, Bitzer and Evenson.

Patriots head coach Bill Ibach has had a front-row view of the team’s core making their final run together.

“I walked into a really good situation,” said Ibach, who has been the Patriots head coach the past four seasons. “They are all really talented players who play at a high level and had played all over.

“They handle pressure really well. Instead of feeling the pressure so much they seem to rise to it and compete and compete well and I think that is because they have been in those situations before as younger kids.”

In order to return to a World Series, the Patriots will have to survive a tough regional field and try to build off its run in the state tournament last weekend in Mandan. The American Legion World Series is set for August 17-21 in Shelby, N.C.

“We were pretty consistent with our hitting over the course of that tournament,” Ibach said. “What really stuck out was the clutch hitting, we got some big hits when we needed them … We got good pitching and defense and if we get good hitting along with that we will be tough to beat.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tom Mix at (701) 451-5651