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Forest Lake's Phil Sauer took batting practice earlier this year. Photo: MARLIN LEVISON/STARTRIBUNE * mlevison@startribune.com

Forest Lake was starting to get used to playing baseball in mid-June. That’s what made last year’s season a disappointment for Phil Sauer. He and the Rangers lost three games to Grand Rapids in the Class 3A, Section 7 tournament, ending a three-year string of state tournament appearances.

What’s more, they lost on their home field.

“That definitely stuck with us,” Sauer said. “There’s quite a bit of motivation for us to get back there and win it this time.”

Coach Tal Gravelle agrees, but wants to make sure the team focuses on the day-to-day operations: Get better, work hard and have fun. The rest will take care of itself.

“Losing last year in the section finals was definitely disappointing,” said Gravelle, who is entering his second season as head coach of the Rangers after serving as a longtime assistant. “We are motivated to try and make it again this year, but we’ve really tried to stress with our team to enjoy the journey. Enjoy all the games. Focus on trying to win a conference title and go on to that next step to qualify for state.”

Forest Lake will embark on the journey with a veteran team this year. Senior captains Beau Fandel, Dylan Dresel and Sauer lead the group.

Fandel, a Nebraska recruit, mashes the baseball and will play catcher this year. Dresel anchors the shortstop position. Sauer will be one of the Rangers’ top pitchers and also play some first base and outfield. Sauer can spot all four of his pitches, including two types of curveballs. He also changes speeds well.

“He’s a bulldog on the mound. A great competitor,” Gravelle said.

Jack Schmidt, who pitches and plays right field, is the top returning hitter. Noah Brown can play the corner infield positions and also pitch. Reid Larson will fill in at third and second base as well. Kyle Parker will play center field and pitch.

Despite the Rangers slumping offensively a bit late last season, Sauer said the American Legion team scored at a high rate all last summer, and they can build on that this spring. The Rangers will have experience and a good mix of right- and lefthanded bats at the plate.

“We’re going to score more,” Sauer said. “There’s no reason we should score less than three runs every game, especially with the veteran lineup.”

Pitching and defense always has been the staple of Forest Lake baseball, and that’s what Gravelle anticipates will be the team’s strength this season.

The Suburban East Conference will be strong, which is nothing new. Cretin-Derham Hall, Mounds View, Stillwater, Woodbury and other teams will make the Rangers bring their A-game every day.

As the snow melts, Forest Lake will look to begin its journey and hopefully start a new trend of playing ball after school’s out.

“That’s definitely the goal — to make it back to the state tournament,” Sauer said.

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