Sean Repay knows his team has a tough act to follow this summer.
Getting set for his third season as the field manager of the Bismarck Larks, Repay wants the franchise to take another big step forward.
“This is a big year for us,” said Repay, who has been the manager since the franchise’s inaugural season in 2017. “Our expectations are pretty high. We’ve been fortunate with a great fan base, they’re very supportive. They’ve seen us grow from the first year being competitive, with a buzz to the second year winning a division title and hosting a playoff game.
“Our goal is to get after a championship this season. That’s attainable for us, but it’s not going to be won or lost in Game 1.”
The Larks announced their opening day roster on Wednesday, and Repay has three players back from last season’s playoff squad, including Wyatt Ulrich, who will play for the Larks for a third straight season.
Ulrich, sophomore at St. John’s (Minn.), hit .257 with 34 runs scored, two doubles, one homer, 18 RBIs and 10 stolen bases for the Larks last summer.
Two pitchers return for Bismarck – Evan Miller and Dominic Arias.
Miller went 1-0 with a 2.34 ERA in seven games last season, walking four and striking out 12 in 7.2 innings. Arias pitched three games and went 1-1 with a 6.54 ERA.
The Larks were set to have a fourth veteran back, but Arkansas’ coaching staff decided to keep Jacob Nesbit on campus for the offseason after he hit .272 with seven doubles, three homers, 30 runs and 41 RBIs as a redshirt freshman for the Razorbacks.
“We’re going to miss that kid a lot,” Repay said. “They wanted to keep him on campus, lift weights, get stronger. He’s one of the best in the SEC. But it doesn’t mean it’s going to be detrimental to our success.”
Even without Nesbit, one of the best things about the Larks’ opening day roster is its depth.
“Maybe the kind of depth we didn’t have last season,” Repay said. “We had some prime-time players who ran out there every day. We kind of beat them into the ground. All of our position guys, they can play every day, but we have some guys behind them that can play at a high level and not miss a beat.”
Being able to give a regular a day or two off without missing a beat was something Repay was looking for when it came to building the roster.
“We want to make sure that if we need to rest a guy, we’re not going to be missing a beat with a guy stepping in for him,” Repay said.
Cooper Bowman, a Rapid City, S.D., native is one newcomer Repay is expecting big things from.
“He’s one of the top players in junior college baseball right now,” he said. “He’s a heavily recruited, highly touted prospect. He’s hitting .480 (at Iowa Western CC), a Gold Glove-caliber kid. He’s going to be the best shortstop in the Northwoods League. He’s going to be a table-setter in our offense.”
Among the new pitchers, Bryan Martinez is a left-hander who posted a 3.64 ERA and 71 Ks at Connors State CC. Alex Winslow had a 1.55 ERA with 90 Ks in 64 innings for Dakota County Tech. Anthony Arias of Campbellsville had a 3.78 ERA and 80 Ks in 64.1 innings.
“Our pitching staff is very deep,” Repay said. “They’re going to be a good one to watch.”
Last year’s first-half division title was fueled in part by a solid rotation and a deep bullpen. This year’s staff has the chance to be even better, Repay said.
“One of the big changes on the pitching staff, last year we had some burners but we had some crafty guys too. We had such a deep bullpen early – if we got through the sixth, every arm we rolled out could go 90-plus, plus a good offspeed pitch.
“We’ve got 16 arms, and 12 of them we think are going to be 90-plus. They’re burners, but they know how to pitch. They have good command, a good secondary pitch.”
The Larks open their third season on Tuesday, May 28 at Municipal Ballpark with a four-game series against the Eau Claire Express. The league will have a different look, with four divisions. The Larks will play in the Great Plains West, along with the Mankato Moondogs, Willmar Stingers, St. Cloud Rox and Rochester Honkers.
The Duluth Huskies, Eau Claire Express, Waterloo Bucks, Thunder Bay Border Cats and La Crosse Loggers will make up the Great Plains East.
The Great Lakes West will be comprised of the Fond du Lac Dock Spiders, Green Bay Booyah, Wisconsin Woodchucks, Madison Mallards, Wisconsin Rapids Rafter and Lakeshore Chinooks.
The Kokomo Jackrabbits, Traverse City Pit Spitters, Rockford Rivers, Kalamazoo Growlers, Kenosha Kingfish and Battle Creek Bombers make up the Great Lakes East.
Repay says that the Larks have built an organization with a good reputation in college baseball.
“We feel very, very good about this season,” he said. “Our goal is always to win a championship. Last year’s group was so special to me. Bismarck is a special place.
“The word is out now about our organization and our city. If we keep getting the level of support we have had, the best players will come to Bismarck and put on a show for us.”
The number of big-time college baseball programs sending players to the Larks – like Arkansas, Texas A&M and Missouri – has grown.
“It’s coming to fruition now,” Repay said. “In year 1, we didn’t have a power-5 school involved. Now to get power-5 conference represented … the word is out. They know Bismarck is a special place to play.”