Baseball: Willmar Cardinals clean up their 'D'

May 17—WILLMAR — Tom DeBoer knows plenty about numbers. He's a math teacher at Willmar High School and the head baseball coach for the Cardinals.

Casually looking through the numbers recently, DeBoer was taken aback at a particular set of numbers: Errors.

Last season, an inexperienced Willmar squad took its lumps in the field. Through their first 10 games of 2023, the Cardinals committed 46 errors. They eventually finished 5-15 overall and 3-11 in the Central Lakes Conference.

Eleven games into the 2024 season, the Cardinals committed 17 errors. Now, they are 9-7 overall, 7-7 in the CLC and are vying for a top spot in the Section 8AAA playoffs.

"To go from almost five to one-and-a-half is a significant change," DeBoer said. "It gives you a chance to win a game with one swing rather than needing to put up eight-to-10 runs just to hang in there."

Willmar looks to cement a home playoff game in the final stretch of the regular season. The Cardinals face 8AAA opponents in four of their final five games. That starts at noon Saturday with home games versus Detroit Lakes and Hutchinson. Then on Tuesday, Willmar hosts section foe Little Falls in a doubleheader.

"It really makes it easy when you don't have to score eight runs a game when our defense can shut them down," said senior utility player Dylan Staska. "It's a lot different than last year."

The Cardinals were a combined 37-10 in the 2021 and '22 seasons. After graduating 14 players in '22, Willmar had to go young and inexperienced last season. The team surrendered a CLC-worst 8.1 runs allowed per game.

"Last year we were playing with virtually no experience on the field or on the mound," DeBoer said. "Not having that presence and just somebody out there to help the team stay calm in tough spots, just somebody that can make a play that's made a play, we struggled last year."

Starting at shortstop as a freshman last season, Jordan Ellingson has become one of Willmar's defensive standouts.

"I think it's just confidence, practice and getting a year of experience," Ellingson said of his improvements. Things he worked on: "Just the motions, going and getting the ball and making a good throw to first base."

DeBoer added, "Jordan has matured so much defensively this year. He's making routine plays look routine and he's making tough plays look easy. That's not what you usually see out of a 10th grader.

"Without those games under his belt from last year, I don't know if we would see him where he's at right now."

The improved execution has been across the diamond. This season, Willmar is giving up 4.6 runs per game.

"Up the middle, from Mason (Thole) and Tyler (Madsen) have caught this year, the way Jordan has played at shortstop and then Dylan at center field, those are your anchors on defense," DeBoer said. "They've all been very good."

By DeBoer's admission, it's not a deep roster. Because of that, Positional flexibility has been key for the Cardinals.

Among them is junior Braeden Fagerlie, who has played second base, left field and center field. That's been helpful with players like Thole and Blake Reiman dealing with injuries.

"Everbody seems to have found their spot and we're not committing errors like we were last year," Fagerlie said. "We're moving the ball and working as a team. We can move people around and we're still making plays."

Staska has relished his role as a utility player. He's seen time in the outfield, on the pitcher's mound and behind the plate at catcher.

"Whether it's pitching, catching, outfield, whatever," Staska said, "I'd like to do whatever I can do to get the W."

After starting the season 1-3, Willmar has won eight of its last 12 games. A turning point for DeBoer was in the Cardinals' doubleheader sweep of Marshall on May 6. They won Game 1 3-1, then held on for a 5-4 victory in Game 2.

"In both games, we were behind but we stayed in the games and gave ourselves a chance and we came up with a big hit in both games," DeBoer said. "When you play a team like Marshall or Rocori, those are baseball towns. They're both kind of the gold standard for baseball in our area. When you compete hard with them, it lets you know where you stand as a team."

Willmar's defense also has a signature play this season, turning a sacrifice bunt into a triple play in the first inning against Sauk Rapids on May 1.

"The triple play, that was a first for me as a coach," said DeBoer, who has been Willmar's coach for 10 seasons. "It was a fun play. Cullen (Gregory) made a great read off the bat. The batter squared up real early and Cullen immediately got up after the catch and knew where to go with the ball. Playing the game mentally is almost more important than how you play physically."

The Section 8AAA tournament doesn't get underway until May 28. With five games to go until then, the cleaned-up Cardinals are looking at another number: the No. 1 team in the section.

"It's been fun," Ellingson said. "When you're not making mistakes, the game is way better and more competitive."

Staska added, "We're a very strong team and if we play up to how we can play, making a state run is definitely achievable."