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Rivermen readying for 2024 season with plenty of experienced players on roster

The Eau Claire Rivermen were all set for their League opener against Augusta Sunday afternoon, but Mother Nature had other plans, thus pushing their first CRBL game to this Sunday in Altoona.

And that gave the squad an extra practice this week to get into gear for what promises to be a competitive Chippewa River Baseball League season. First pitch for what is now the team’s League opener against the Eau Claire Bears is set for 12:30 p.m. at Cinder City Park.

Gearing up for the distance of the 2024 campaign, player/manager Andy Niese likes what he has seen so far in at least two areas of his team’s play.

“Thus far in our five non-league/preseason games, we are 2 and 3. The strengths of our team thus far have been pitching and defense. We have given up a total of only 10 runs. while making just four errors in those five games,” Niese told the Leader-Telegram in an exclusive interview.

While establishing the team’s identity is still a work in progress, Niese said his roster is set. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some challenges he and the squad will have to face in the early part of this three-month regular season.

“Like every amateur baseball team, the biggest early season challenges for the Rivermen will be establishing a consistent lineup, consistent player attendance, and minimizing injuries,” Niese admitted.

And while all areas of play will obviously continue to be worked on and honed as the season progresses, the player/manager specified a few crucial parts of the game that the squad must concentrate on.

“Things we need to work on are largely related to hitting and offense, which is rather normal for early season competition. Almost invariably, pitchers will be ahead of the hitters in the early stages of any baseball season, regardless of the level,” Niese, a 32-year-veteran of CRBL play headed into this season, noted.

Doing double duty with the Rivermen is obviously a daunting task, but that’s not Niese’s only baseball gig. He also serves as the Regis Ramblers head baseball coach, which makes his schedule a hectic one — at least for the first month of the CRBL’s regular season.

However, Niese is not only up to that challenge, he embraces it, as baseball is in his blood and his passion for the sport has not dimmed in the more-than-three decades he has either played or coached the game.

“Admittedly, running and organizing an amateur baseball team while coaching high school baseball at the same time is pretty challenging,” Niese admitted, adding, “For instance, one of the most enjoyable parts of coaching high school baseball is the professional collaboration with assistant coaches and school administration. In amateur baseball/town ball, it’s a pleasure to get to play baseball and still be on the diamond, but from a managerial and organizational perspective, you typically get little to no assistance from anyone, although folks are rarely shy in giving you their ideas on what you should be doing.”

The player/manager noted “That dynamic greatly contributes to the heavy turnover we have in managers within the CRBL — the shelf life is usually about three seasons for league managers. One thing I’ve had to do in order to compensate for that dynamic is backload the Rivermen schedule on an annual basis — we play the majority of our league games after the high school season has been completed.”

With a total of 31 preseason and regular season games, which includes double headers, on their 2024 slate, the season promises to be an exciting one as the Rivermen aim to make the CRBL playoffs this season after narrowly missing it last year.

The squad’s 2023 campaign saw the Rivermen finish at 12-8 and in a tie for third-place in the South Division of the CRBL with the Eau Claire Bears. Unfortunately for the Rivermen, they lost the tie-breaker to the Bears and thus were on the outside looking in for the League’s playoffs. With a roster loaded with a combined total of 124 years of CRBL experience leading up to this season, they hope to change that this year. In addition to Niese’s 32 seasons in the CRBL prior to the start of this season, other players on the unofficial roster provided to the Leader-Telegram with years of experience in the double digits include Tyler Gray with 19 and Sawyer Sturz with 11. Eight of the team’s 20 planned players have a minimum of five years of playing experience in the CRBL.

Notable dates on the Rivermen and CRBL schedule include the League’s All-Star game, set for 2 p.m. July 7 at Jim Falls’ Sturgeon Stadium; two games at the Bruce Invite on July 13; Wildcard Wednesday, planned for July 31 and the CRBL championship game scheduled for August 3. For more information on the Rivermen and other CRBL teams, go to the League’s website www.crblbaseball.com. For specific Rivermen info on that website, add the backslash eau-claire-rivermen. The Rivermen also have a Facebook page that posts updates and can be found by using the key words Eau Claire Rivermen.