Bobcat baseball back to ride summer-long roller coaster

Wade Canaday, Dru Dobbins, Dylan Eygabroad and Tate Kuehner

The Marshalltown High School baseball team experienced the best and worst an Iowa summertime has to offer.

The day after clinching the 12th state tournament berth in school history, the Bobcats were helping their hometown clean up after a crippling tornado.

Sure, it’s an extreme version of the scale, but the 2018 season was every bit a fitting example of what it takes to endure a summer in the Central Iowa Metropolitan League.

This year’s iteration of the Bobcat baseball squad returns five starters and seven regulars from a lineup that won 11 of its first 13 games, lost 13 of its next 17 and survived the roller coaster ride to make a postseason run that resulted in a trip to Principal Park in Des Moines for the first time in a decade.

Bringing back a group that helped Marshalltown endure the peaks, the valleys and everything in between is the best thing that could happen for this summer’s Bobcat baseball team.

“Well, it was a lot of fun and I’m glad we had a bunch of guys who were able to experience that whole thing a year ago where we had good stretches and bad stretches, really horrible stretches, and were able to hang in there and piece it together and survive it,” said MHS head coach Steve Hanson. “That’s what you have to do in our league, just tolerate it and try to improve every day and try to improve every week and put yourself in a position to have a chance in July.”

Beating, or at least hanging tough with, the best of the CIML is a recipe for success, even if it means suffering from a lack of it during the dog days of summer. Last year, the Marshalltown baseball team went 8-10 in the CIML’s Iowa Conference and 18-18 overall before breaking through with two substate wins. A first-round loss to eventual Class 4A champion Urbandale was the outcome, but the journey gave the Bobcats a chance to reach their desired destination.

The Bobcats will meet a mostly new alignment of conference foes this season, but the opponents are equally potent. Marshalltown, Mason City and Fort Dodge remain intact, while Urbandale, Johnston and Dowling Catholic have been replaced by Southeast Polk, Waukee and West Des Moines Valley.

“It shifts for us this year, but it’s the same stuff,” said Hanson. “Lose a Dowling, get a Valley. Lose a Johnston, play Waukee, Southeast Polk. Those are all top-10 teams. If you play well, you’ve got a chance. If you don’t, you’re going to get beat up — that’s no different. You just have to withstand the pressure and if you’re getting beat up, don’t tuck and run, you’ve got to fight back a little bit.”

“You’ve got to endure,” Hanson continued. “This year it has to start with the four three-year letterwinners. We don’t have many of those — that doesn’t happen very often — and now we have four guys who have a wonderful understanding of what we expect and understand the league and understand the nuances of baseball, so that’s a great place to begin.”

The core group of Bobcats back from last year’s state tournament contingent are seniors Wade Canaday, Dru Dobbins, Dylan Eygabroad and Tate Kuehner. Each of them have already committed to collegiate baseball programs for their futures, indicating the type of ability Marshalltown’s lineup will feature every night on the diamond.

“It’s not everyday for us that we have that level of talent,” Hanson said. “Many of those guys are up the middle [defensively], so it’s nice to have those four guys back. And there’s another senior in Blake Trowbridge who hasn’t played as much as those guys but is more a veteran than a rookie for sure, and two juniors who were able to play quite a bit last year in (Joseph) Harris and (Will) Van Buren.

“That’s seven guys who have played and we would expect them to play at a higher level this year, and if they do that they can carry a couple guys along and teach them the ropes as we go.”

The key cog missing from a year ago is Nate Vance, Marshalltown’s leadoff hitter and all-state pitcher. Vance started on the mound in 14 games, pitched 72 2/3 innings and finished the season 9-3 with 74 strikeouts and a 2.22 earned run average.

He also led the Bobcat bats with a .349 average, 31 runs scored and 20 stolen bases.

“The one big piece that we don’t have back is Nate Vance, and not because he was Sandy Koufax by any means, but he would take the ball, he wanted the ball,” said Hanson. “That’s a very important attribute. That mentality is really hard to replace, and we’ll see who can step up and fill that part of the void. From a talent perspective, from a pitching perspective, I think we have some guys who can pitch on that same level if not higher than that level.

“We’ll see how they compete because that’s the one thing about Vance and (Kody) Ricken and (Sam) Irwin — they weren’t afraid to go compete, and that’s a really important thing to have when you’ve lost 10 games in a row because if you lose that, then the whole ship goes underwater, but ours didn’t [last year] because of those guys.”

Kuehner, a left-handed pitcher like Vance, threw 51 2/3 frames last summer while going 3-5 with a 2.17 ERA, and Canaday was 3-4 with a 1.59 ERA in 39 2/3 innings. Hanson expects Harris to see a substantial bump in innings after throwing 23 1/3 frames last summer, too.

“They threw 50 innings a year ago and they threw 50 innings as sophomores, so that’s 100 innings. That’s a lot of innings to pitch in a high school career and now they’ve got a chance to build on that,” said Hanson. “They both possess plus fastballs, they also have good offspeed stuff, they’ll hold you on, they’ll work runners, they field their position — it’s great to have a tandem like that.”

Canaday was a second-team all-CIML Iowa Conference selection a year ago while Dobbins, Eygabroad and Kuehner each earned honorable mention selection. Canaday batted .283 with a team-high 12 doubles, four home runs and 24 RBIs, while the first baseman Dobbins hit .198 with four homers and a team-leading 30 RBIs. Eygabroad, the team’s everyday shortstop, hit .277 and Kuehner batted .263 with five doubles and 21 RBIs.

Canaday and Harris both saw regular playing time at third base last year, while Kuehner will roam center field again when he’s not on the mound. Junior Will Van Buren and Harris both have experience behind the plate, while there’s a healthy amount of competition for the corner outfield spots. Trowbridge has experience playing in either left or right field, but Hanson hasn’t yet filled out his lineup card for Tuesday’s season- and home-opener against Newton.

“We need to be really efficient on the bases, we need to be efficient when we’re trying to bunt and move runners,” said Hanson. “We have to be good at that because we don’t have guys who can just stand and slug it, so we have to generate some stuff on our own and apply pressure when we can and play good defense and throw strikes — and then you’ve got a chance. It’s baseball.”

Keeping with the Bobcat tradition is Hanson’s coaching staff, which features five former players. Jake Borton, Allen Mann, Cole Keeper and Colton Hanke all have their roles, along with first-year volunteer Spencer Gritsch, a BGM graduate and assistant baseball and football coach at Central College.

Marshalltown baseball also plans to honor its back-to-back state tournament teams from a decade ago. The Bobcats will welcome back players, managers and coaches from the 2008-09 teams that made consecutive trips to state when MHS hosts North Polk on Friday, June 14.