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The Hunted

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The defending state champion Glenwood baseball team begins the 2011 season with a target on its back

By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

    It was 297 days ago that the Glenwood baseball team hoisted the Class 3A state champion trophy at Principal Park in Des Moines.


    Entering the 2011 season, Glenwood begins the season in unfamiliar territory: as defending state champions with a big, fat target on its back.
    “We talked last year when we were ranked pretty high that we had a target on our back,” said Elam. “And then whether it’s fate or luck or however you look at it, we win the state championship and that target has quadrupled in size.”
    The defending Class 3A and Hawkeye 10 Conference champion Rams, 30-7 overall and 16-2 in the conference last season, come off their historic 2010 season with holes to fill in the batting order but also with perhaps one of the deepest pitching staffs in the state. It’s those questions that has Glenwood coach Brett Elam cautiously optimistic about his 2011 Rams.
    “We talked about it and I think they’ve talked about it amongst themselves,” Elam said of his team handling expectations. “Whether we have our whole team or two kids coming back, we’re the defending state champs and everybody is looking to beat us now.”
    Among the biggest losses Elam is looking to replace are a trio of multi-year starters in catcher Bryan Harless, shortstop Grant Loeffelbein and Nick Wells. Those three combined to drive in 118 of the Rams’ 298 runs last season and belt 14 of their 26 team home runs.
    Filling those three spots won’t be easy, Elam said. But matching those players’ production hit for hit, and RBI for RBI won’t be as important as some younger players matching the effort those three departed seniors showed over the last four seasons.
    “We lost some good players who put up good numbers so they won’t be easy to replace but we’re looking for players to come in who want to grab the bull by the horns and want to step up and be those guys,” said Elam.
    First up for Elam is finding somebody who wants to be the Rams’ catcher.
    A group of four underclassmen are wrangling to fill Harless’ shoes, a three-year starter, behind the plate.
    “Bryan was a luxury back there, he was very solid defensively and at the plate,” said Elam. “Right now, I just want somebody back there who can stop the ball. I don’t care if they throw anyone out as long as they can stop the ball.”
    The top candidates at catcher appear to be juniors Health Loeffelbein and Grant Stivers and freshmen Brady Douma and Brady Wheeler. Loeffelbein started seven games behind the plate last season while Stivers platooned at second base for most of last season.
    “I’m not above playing a freshman or anybody back there if they get the job done,” said Elam. “I’m not going to play favorites, I want to give us the best chance to win.”
    Taylor Kaufman, a University of Iowa signee, is the Rams’ returning leading hitter with a .495 average. Kaufman also drove in 42 runs, smacked 19 doubles and five home runs and swiped 32 bases. Also returning is lead-off man Kyle Wheeler, who hit .313 last season and scored 36 runs.
    An area where Elam seems most comfortable is that deep and talented pitching rotation that gave up less than three runs a game and held opponents to a .222 batting average last season.
    Kaufman, a left-hander, went 12-0 on the mound with 126 strikeouts and a minuscule 0.90 earned run average last season. Five of his wins came in the Rams’ historic post-season run.
    Pairing with Kaufman is fellow left-handed senior hurler Matt Schulz, a Wayne State signee, who was 5-1 a year ago with 2.79 earned run average. The Rams also return senior Drake Ruth, who is 10-6 on the mound over the last two seasons, and sophomore Alex Forbes, who went 2-1 with a save in his freshmen season.
    “We’re happy with our pitching,” said Elam. “Obviously, you know day one you’re going to the post-season no matter what but you know you’re only as good as your pitching. You have to play defense and score runs, but pitching is the key to the whole thing. We’re fortunate to have the pitching coming back we do.”
    Kaufman, a 6-foot-2, 175 pounder, started slowly last year after a bout with shoulder tendinitis, before hitting his stride in the middle of the season.
    “We didn’t know how his arm was going to be last season and how he’d bounce back from one outing to the next so we sort of babied him,” said Elam. “But he was stronger last year and in the fall we opened up his stride a little bit to take some pressure off arm and I’ll tell you what, he’s throwing four to five miles per hour than he was at anytime last season. He’s as strong now as he’s ever been.”
    Elam said Kaufman’s fastball tops out at 91 MPH.
    Elam also listed senior Zach Peterson, sophomore Justin Fisher and freshman Corey Bertini as pitching possibilities for the Rams.
    Glenwood’s tough schedule includes three Hawkeye 10 teams that spent part of last season ranked won at least 20 games a season ago. The Rams also travel to tournaments in Elk Point, S.D. and  Omaha South.
    Elam would actually like to make the Rams’ schedule a little tougher but the coach’s request for games with dozens of schools in the western half of the state since February have gone largely unfulfilled. Elam thinks that might be a result of his team’s state championship.
    “It’s been sort of the opposite of what you’d think,” said Elam. “It’s been tough to add games, I don’t know if its the A.D.’s (athletic directors) or the coaches handling their scheduling and they just wait until the last minute or they have concerns about playing us but its been rough to add games.”
    With spring sports still in full swing, Elam’s had just a hand full of practices with a full compliment of his team.
    “It’s early but we’re looking pretty good,” said Elam. “We have to kind of take it easy with the kids playing other sports because we don’t want them to get hurt but it’s hard to get ready and get in baseball shape. But we’ll get there.”