Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hot Corners: Pierz sustains a baseball hotbed

By Nick Gerhardt

news@mnbaseball.org

On a Friday evening in Pierz, Minnesota, a town of 1,697 people, a 17-year-old left-handed pitcher prepares to face his uncle. He strikes him out only to later face his other uncle. Same result — and not an unusual sight at John Hellie Field at American Legion Park. 

Mitchell Herman, a junior-to-be at Pierz-Healy High School, faced his uncles Paul and Peter. Mitchell struck out both of them, though most in the stands recognized that Paul and Peter tried swinging for the fences during their at-bats.

Baseball’s roots run as deep as the family tree roots in Pierz and often they’re intertwined. Generations of players have stepped onto Hellie Field, named after longtime head baseball coach John Hellie. Fathers, sons and even grandsons played under Hellie, who led the high school program for 29 years and he helped lay the foundation of what’s become one of Minnesota’s hottest corners of baseball. 

BASEBALL HOTBED

The Pierz area features four amateur baseball teams filled with a majority of players who have graduated from Pierz-Healy High School. Those teams include the Buckman Billygoats, Pierz Brewers, Pierz Bulldogs and Pierz Lakers. Between the four teams, 65 of the 78 players have grown up in the Pierz baseball program — quite the accomplishment for a school that graduates between 90-100 students per class. 

“It’s a tremendous, tremendous community,” said Pierz native and former baseball head coach Danny Saehr. “The support from parents, from businesses, from relatives, it’s truly second to none.”

There’s hardly an open spot for advertising on the outfield chain link fence and fans find a seat in the grandstand or on a pickup tailgate. The game might appear secondary to the chit-chat between friends, but don’t be fooled. Much of that conversation revolves around baseball. That’s just the way it is in Pierz. 

“It’s just what you did on Sunday afternoons, you went to the ballpark,” said Paul Oldakowski, who managed 12 years for Buckman, a hamlet just 7 miles south of Pierz that features a roster full of Pierz graduates. “It’s still that way.”

With so many teams in one area, competition for players gets fierce. The Pierz Lakers and Pierz Brewers feature more veteran players while Buckman and the Pierz Bulldogs have younger players. 

“There’s such a competition for players, you’ve got to get them by ninth or 10th grade,” Oldakowski said.

Often teams get filled by different graduating Pierz classes as friends continue to play together.

“It’d be fair to say there are some best friends competing against each other, some relatives, heck, even some brothers are playing against each other,” Saehr said. “Myself, as a coach, I’ve played against a number of kids that I’ve coached. It makes it tough because you know them so well, but it also makes it fun because you’re able to BS with them during the game and after the game. I think about 90 percent of the players know the person they’re playing against on the other team really well. It’s part of amateur baseball.”

HELLIE’S INFLUENCE

Though it’s hard to pinpoint one moment where Pierz baseball became so ubiquitous, the expansion of teams in the area seems to coincide with the arrival of John Hellie in 1969.  

In addition to leading the high school program, Hellie led the summer baseball program, which included players ages 6-15, for 27 years. In 1972, he revived the American Legion team and led that team to a state tournament in 1995. 

Hellie finished his high school coaching career with a 350-139 record, 19 conference titles, seven district titles, one regional title and one state tournament appearance in 1986. 

In 2017, Pierz named the field at American Legion Park after him before he died in 2018 at the age of 72. 

“Some guys are still playing who played under him,” Saehr said. “Some guys that are retired all say H (Hellie) had fun playing the game or coaching the game and he made sure kids had fun playing the game. I think every kid that played for him would say that H was a player’s coach. It makes it fun, especially in the game of baseball.”

Baseball success continued even after Saehr and David Rocheleau stepped down as head coaches. Dylan Pittman leads the baseball program now after taking over for Saehr in 2020. 

Pierz made the 2016 and 2017 state tournaments. The Pioneers lost to Minnehaha Academy in the 2017 Class 2A state title game a year after losing to the Redhawks in the semifinals. Pierz did go on to claim the 2017 American Legion state title with a win over the Minnehaha Academy legion team and later won the Central Region title, becoming just the third Minnesota team to do so. Many of the players from that team now play for Buckman. 

Hellie Field remains a draw for younger players because of its immaculate upkeep. Denny Rothstein spent many years maintaining the field and the community rallied in 1996 to add lights when the school sold the field to the Legion Park Inc. The sale allowed the Legion Park Inc. board to use its 501(c)(3) status to fundraise for the lights and later sell beer during amateur games. These days Sev Poser and others help maintain the field while Sev’s son, Mike, helps run the concession stand.

“It’s definitely a hotbed and the field has a lot to do with it,” said Ron Litke, a Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame member, who spent many years playing with Shady Brook. 

GOOD COACHING

Before Hellie arrived in Pierz, Fred Boiko coached the baseball team. Boiko grew up in Detroit and spent five seasons playing minor league baseball. The 1968 Pierz baseball team included a talented group of athletes, including Mike Poepping, who played in 14 games for the Minnesota Twins in 1975. Longtime amateur player and now radio broadcaster Paul Froncak recalls Boiko getting eight players from that squad tryouts with professional teams. 

If there is a common theme with Pierz area teams, it’s that the mental part of the game gets emphasized at an early age. Hellie and longtime assistant Rich Sczublewski instilled in players situational knowledge, but with so many former players and coaches in the area, baseball knowledge seems to accumulate merely by osmosis. 

Tony Kummet grew up playing with the Lastrup Lakers and umpires many of the games around Pierz. He also spent time coaching youth teams in the past and also emphasized the mental part of the game.   

“You drill them,” Kummet said. “I had the boys in the field, where you’re going with it. You have to make them think out there. Make them want it, make them want to play. They’ve got to want the ball.” 

Members of the 1940 Pierz Pirates baseball team

VICTORY LEAGUE

The Victory League formed in 1946 and is named in recognition of the victory in World War II for allied forces, but Pierz’s baseball success predates the league. Pierz made its first trip to the amateur baseball state tournament in 1942 and added trips in 1944, 1945 and a pair of third-place finishes in 1948 and 1952. Pierz made additional trips in 1957 and 1967 before other teams in the area started to flourish. 

While Pierz has maintained a team throughout the years, others popped up, too. As many as eight teams in the Pierz area had rosters filled with players from the Pierz school district years ago. 

The Pierz Bulldogs began as Barney’s Bulldogs back in 1982 while nearby Shady Brook, Genola, Hillman and Harding all had teams at some point, in addition to the Lakers, who formerly played in nearby Lastrup, and the Billygoats, whose history stretches back nearly 50 years. Harding, population 141, just north of Pierz even had two teams — the Dinosaurs and the Supersonics.

In 1972, both Shady Brook and Genola advanced to the state tournament while Pierz made a trip in 1977 and Shady Brook appeared again in the 1976 tournament. 

The Pierz Pirates pre-date the start of the Victory League with photos dating to 1940, before World War II sent ballplayers overseas. 

Through the years, Pierz teams have included the Cubs and Dolphins while Buckman had monikers of the Bees, Bucs and Saints. Shady Brook went by the Broncos while Genola had the Brewers, who eventually moved to Pierz, where they play today. 

‪Before they were the Buckman Billygoats, before they were the Buckman Pirates or the Buckman Bucs, they were just ... Buckman. Pictured in uniform is Teddy Funk. From left to right in front are sons Jerry, Jimmy and Alvin. Alvin grew up to play for Buckman and managed the Billygoats to the 1999 Class C Championship in Granite Falls. Jimmy and Jerry also enjoyed outstanding careers in amateur baseball in the area for Buckman and Genola. (Photo courtesy of Victory League)

‪Before they were the Buckman Billygoats, before they were the Buckman Pirates or the Buckman Bucs, they were just … Buckman. Pictured in uniform is Teddy Funk. From left to right in front are sons Jerry, Jimmy and Alvin. Alvin grew up to play for Buckman and managed the Billygoats to the 1999 Class C Championship in Granite Falls. Jimmy and Jerry also enjoyed outstanding careers in amateur baseball in the area for Buckman and Genola. (Photo courtesy of Victory League)

BUCKMAN STATE TITLE

Buckman remains the only team in the area along Hwy. 25 to capture a state title. The Billygoats did so in 1999 with Alvin Funk managing the team. The championship fulfilled a lifelong dream for Funk, who managed Buckman for 35 years before dying in 2001. Funk will be inducted into the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame in September. 

Buckman first fielded a team more than 50 years ago. The town of 200 has fielded teams of different names in the past like the Bucs and Saints but really didn’t become the Billygoats until someone suggested the name at a local tavern. The name stuck and Buckman put away the Pierz Pirates uniforms it acquired after the team folded and donned jerseys with “Billygoats” spelled out. 

Twenty years following the state championship they finished third, the roster filled with the sons of the players from the 1999 team. In all, Buckman has appeared in 10 state tournaments and has a runner-up finish from 2001. 

Alvin learned the game from his father, Ted, who played for Buckman as Alvin and his brothers, Jimmy and Jerry grew up on the family farm. The Funk family remains intrinsically involved with the Billygoats. Alvin’s grandson, Noah Boser, still plays for Buckman and the team featured six of his grandsons at one time. 

Before that, Alvin relied on players like Scott Boser, Noah’s father and Alvin’s son-in-law, Mark Cekalla, Paul Cekalla, Mike Suska, Matt Suska and Scott Geiger to win that 1999 Class C championship. These days those names remain on the lineup card for the Billygoats, but they’re all a generation younger.

Scott Boser won tournament MVP honors as he broke the tournament record for hits in 1999, going 19-for-35 (.543 average) in seven games, a record he still holds. He scored 13 runs, hit six home runs, matched the tournament record for RBI (17) and finished with a .943 slugging percentage.

“That was his ultimate dream,” Scott Boser said of Alvin. “(Alvin) told me in 1996, ‘We need two ballplayers.’ We got two guys from Royalton, their team folded at the time.”

Those two players were the Cekalla brothers and the rest is history. 

COLLEGE PLAYERS BOLSTER PROGRAM

There’s been a long line of Pierz players who have gone on to play at the college level and each time a player moves onto the next level, they bring something back with them to Pierz to further bolster the program. 

Recently, former Pierz players Matt Tautges, Lane Girtz and Aaron Weber have played with St. Scholastica. Meanwhile, Noah Boser and Matt Kummet have played at Bemidji State University.

The Pierz Lakers feature 11 players with college experience. Buckman has 10. The Brewers have just three and the Bulldogs five. 

“These kids are getting the opportunity to play college ball and they’re bringing it back,” Oldakowski said. “You see it out on the ball field, in practice, the batting cage and in the outfield between innings. Pete Suska, who played at UW-Superior, he’s the catching coach there, talks with the young catchers. He’s teaching these kids how to become better catchers. Kids are going away and coming back and sharing that.”

YOUTH PROGRAM

A generation or two ago, boys learned the game by playing catch in the backyard with their father and playing games with siblings and neighbors. While that still happens, more often, kids find the diamond through the youth baseball program in Pierz. 

Pierz typically sees around 10-12 baseball players per class at the high school level, Saehr said. Even with so many players, the high school program doesn’t cut players, Saehr said.

Youth baseball has remained strong in the Pierz area since Hellie’s days. The Little 6 League brought together players from surrounding communities to compete against each other. Alvin Funk coached the Buckman kids back then, too. That league helped develop a deep base of players for the future. 

These days, the league is the Junior Victory League, and there are multiple teams at different age levels.

“Baseball’s always kind of a big deal here,” Saehr said. “I think our numbers have gotten even higher because of our youth program. It’s fun. We’ve got a beautiful field to play on.”

Each year Pierz holds the John Hellie Youth Tournament for ages 10-14-and-under. It brings about 40 teams to town and they play on nine different fields. 

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Pierz didn’t begin a traveling program until around 2012 and a youth baseball association followed two years later. Those changes have only bolstered an already vibrant program.

Though the small towns around Pierz like Buckman, Lastrup and Harding, no longer have their own team, those players have become part of the Pierz youth program. Players in the youth program have the option to play in both the Junior Victory League and the traveling teams, which participate in area tournaments. 

TRADITION

As the Pierz Bulldogs take on the Pierz Lakers at Hellie Field, youngsters play pickup baseball in between grabbing foul balls. It’s a familiar sight in the world of amateur baseball in Minnesota, but in Pierz it’s gone on for generations. 

Sons, coached by their fathers, go on to coach their sons and soon grandfathers sit along the baselines reminiscing about their playing days or discuss the nuances of the game with friends. 

Sunday is for church, but it’s also for baseball in Pierz.

“Kids start playing when they’re young and they’re still out here playing when they’re 40,” Oldakowski said.

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