If past seasons are any indication, the Napoleon River Bandits could be due for some late-summer excitement.
Mimicking the weather outside, the 28-9 Bandits have won 13 of their last 14 contests, shaking off a sluggish 5-4 start to the season by winning the Todd Ryan Memorial Tournament in Wasilla, Alaska and the BP Invitational in Anchorage.
After the long trip home from the Last Frontier, the Bandits even kept up success on familiar soil. Faced with a 9-1 deficit after the first inning, Napoleon roared back Wednesday at Defiance College to knock off a talented Pemberville squad 12-11 thanks to a walk-off single from Brandon Shafer.
With a red-hot squad set to again trek north, this time to St. Paul, Minn. for five games, Chad Donsbach’s Bandits appear to be getting ready to play high-level baseball at just the right time.
“We’ve played really good baseball in all facets of the game,” explained Donsbach. “Early on we were swinging it well and then maybe not pitching the best, and then vice versa in another game. The whole entire Alaska trip, I thought we pitched extremely well and swung extremely well and played some of the best defense we’ve played all summer. We’ve taken big steps in all three areas.
“We’re hammering in on what guys’ roles are in terms of bullpen guys, starters, every-day lineup guys and guys we can mix and match here and there.”
The key to the torrid stretch from Alaska to today? Team chemistry, according to Donsbach.
“It starts with the fact that there’s no distractions other than we’re playing baseball in a totally different area from Ohio,” said the Bandit skipper. “It’s just baseball and then we do fun stuff as a team. That in itself is a reason we have such success when we’re up there. We get to spend a lot of time together and really get to know each other.
“There’s times on the trip where we don’t have access to cell phones and internet and TV so it really forces the guys to communicate with one another and then you start to see that on the field. It’s such a neat and different trip.”
In 37 games this season, the Bandits are hitting at a .315 clip as a team, with that number rising to .344 in the 13 games of the Alaska trip and Wednesday’s game against Pemberville.
Landon Willeman, a Napoleon High School standout, has excelled both at the plate (.392, 9 doubles, 2 home runs, 23 RBIs, 40 runs) and the mound (3 saves, 3.24 ERA, 47 strikeouts, 33.1 innings) so far for the River Bandits, most notably a 6-for-6 effort in the leadoff slot against Pemberville.
With arms like Antwerp junior Austin Lichty (4-0, 17 innings, 2.12 ERA, 14 Ks), Edon’s Daryke Bass (5-1, 5 saves, 1.67 ERA, 26 strikeouts, 21.2 innings), Christian Petersen (Patrick Henry, 4-0, 41 strikeouts, 3.71 ERA, 34 innings) and Caleb Frank (Fairview, 31.2 innings, 3-0, 26 strikeouts, 3.41 ERA) among eight players with at least 17 innings of work this season, the Bandits have plenty of arms to turn to.
Backing up those arms has been a potent lineup with Defiance slugger Brandon Shafer (.363, 37 hits, 34 RBIs) headlining things following a five-hit, four-RBI outing against Pemberville.
Hunter Bostater (Fairview, .348, 39 hits, 37 runs, 30 RBIs), Jeron Williams (Archbold, .316, 34 hits, 15 RBIs), Lichty (.313, 11 RBIs, 22 runs), Axel Shanks (Patrick Henry, .296, 25 RBIs, 29 runs) and Zac Brickel (Hicksville, 33 hits, 1 homer, 37 RBIs) also add pop to the batting order for the River Bandits.
“I think our team chemistry has improved. It was pretty good prior to the Alaska trip and I’d say it’s off the charts now,” explained Donsbach. “There were a lot of things we did as a team in Alaska that really hammered in our team chemistry.”
The grueling trip from Alaska back to Ohio wrapped up quickly earlier this week and the Bandits will race off for a 10-hour drive to St. Paul for five games over the next three days at the University of Northwestern.
Napoleon will play Tri-City Maroon Post 513 (New Brighton, Minn.) and Team Manitoba (Canada) today before Saturday contests against Chanhassen (Minn.) Post 580 and Lino Lakes (Minn.) Post 566 and a Sunday clash against the Hardhats from Rapid City (South Dakota) Post 22.
After returning home following Sunday’s game, the turnaround is again quick with District 1 tournament action beginning on Wednesday at Ottawa and potentially running through the following Sunday.
Over past seasons, however, the trips to Alaska have been worth it in the end for the River Bandits.
“You go back and look at our team history, every year we’ve gone to Alaska we’ve made a long tournament run,” recalled Donsbach. “I’m not saying that’s going to happen this year because our district is very tough with Pemberville and Findlay being loaded and Ottawa much improved from last year. We haven’t seen Toledo yet this year.
“In 2017 we won the state title, that was an Alaska year. In 2013, it was an Alaska year, we ended up going to the World Series. 2011 was an Alaska year, we went to the regionals. There’s just something about it.”