Yes, the Mandan Chiefs are alumni of the school of hard knocks. And they expect to be better for having attended.
Last summer's edition of the Chiefs would have made a formidable Babe Ruth baseball team.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they were called upon to navigate a 44-game Class AA American Legion baseball schedule.
Playing with two 15-year-olds, three 16-year-olds and six 17-year olds, the Chiefs won just six of 18 statewide decisions en route to a 9-35 overall record.
That trial by fire didn't chase any of them away. The only player not back for another go at Legion baseball is Mason Schlosser, who aged out.
New head coach Jake Kincaid, who has a 12-year coaching background in the Mandan baseball program, is expecting mere maturity to make the Chiefs an improved team. Additionally, last summer's rookies are now acclimated to the demands of AA baseball.
"We had a lot of kids take some lumps last year, and the fact they endured a summer with minimal success and are all back says a lot about them," Kincaid said. "... It's a big credit to them that they're back and they really do like being around the ballpark."
Kincaid noted that because almost all of his players are returning veterans it's easy to forget just how young they really are.
"Some of them are 16 and coming off their sophomore year in high school. ... You just kind of forget they're still young. They had to kind of accelerate their baseball careers, and, hopefully, we'll see the benefits of that," he said.
"I hope they take those lessons they learned last year and carry them into this year," he added.
Kincaid will begin to find out tonight when the Chiefs play host to defending state AA champion Fargo Post 2 in a 5:30 doubleheader at Memorial Ballpark.
Mandan's Legion baseball roster bears a striking resemblance to that of the high school team, which reached the state Class A tournament and finished 20-17.
"We'll pretty much roll out the team that made it to the (high school) tournament. They started 2-8 and through the year you could see the improvement. And the most important thing is the confidence that just kept growing," Kincaid observed. "Legion baseball is a different animal when kids are confident ... and that's something that's transferable."
Kincaid said the foundation of the team will be the pitching staff.
"Our top four or five pitchers are very solid. After that we have some question marks about who's going to fill the sixth spot and the bullpen," he said.
Last summer the top starters were Jaden Andresen (4-5), Mason Huntley (2-6), Ty Leingang (2-3) and Alex Horner (1-4). All but Horner pitched over 40 innings.
Kincaid is also hoping left-hander Camren Steckler can man a spot in the rotation. Steckler, who will be a senior at Mandan High School in the fall, returned after a five-year layoff from baseball to win five of six decisions this spring.
Steckler left his state tournament start in the third inning with what was thought to be a strained muscle in his throwing shoulder. However, Kincaid said Steckler was throwing again at practice on Monday.
"His ceiling is so very, very high. He took that time off from baseball, so he has a fresh arm. He's still finding his mechanics a little bit and getting to where he can be," the coach noted.
Kincaid said the middle of his batting order will probably include Leingang and Mason Huntley. Both can play multiple positions, although Huntley will probably handle the lion's share of the catching duties.
"(Huntley) is a kid who can move around and be successful at a number of positions. ... I think we have four or five other kids who can be comfortable at five or six positions," Kincaid said.
Indeed, Kincaid's 15-man roster has nine players listed as pitchers, three as catchers, 12 as infielders and six as outfielders.
"Positionally, from last year we'll stay largely the same. What we will have is some flexibility to play kids at different spots, depending who's in the mound," Kincaid said. "We'll have up to 15 kids on the roster this year, compared to 11 or 12 last year. ... If you look at our roster we can go two, and sometimes three, deep at every position. That will be a plus for us, as well."
Mandan hit just .215 as a team and averaged just 2.9 runs per game, so offense will obviously be a work in progress.
"In Legion baseball you have to score runs, so (offense) is going to be a focus," Kincaid said. "With metal bats it's going to be an offensive game."
The top offensive performers last summer were Huntley, who hit .308 with 18 RBIs, Ricky Zander, who hit .271, and Mason Schlosser, who hit .266 with 24 RBIs. Schlosser has used up his Legion baseball eligibility. Leingang and Schlosser hit the team's only home runs last season.
The Chiefs averaged 2.6 errors per game and surrendered 99 unearned runs. Kincaid expects those numbers to come down now that his players have adapted to the AA Legion game.
"The old baseball adage is the ball will find you. I think the kids this year will be a lot more ready when the ball does find them," the coach said. "Hopefully, the game has slowed down for them."