By Jake Calhoun
Journal Sports Writer
NICOLLET - While area teams such as New Ulm Cathedral and Sleepy Eye St. Mary's garner their familiar share of attention in baseball, Nicollet has been cruising under the radar.
But after jumping out to a 7-2 start - propelled by a seven-game winning streak - the Raiders have earned the No. 18 ranking in the latest Class A state poll.
Coach Jeff Zimmerman said the key to his team's success thus far has been its pitching.
"We've preached to our kids to go out there and throw strikes, let the defense work behind you," Zimmerman said. "We've really got strong pitching throughout the first eight, nine games here to start the season."
The unique aspect about Zimmerman's pitching situation is that his team doesn't have an ace per se, but instead has four key contributors on the mound: Matt Christenson, Jay Hendrycks, Colin Bloemke and Gavin Nourie.
"They all played last year," Zimmerman said. "Matt Christenson's a four-year starter, Colin's a two-year starter as a junior and Gavin's a two-year starter as a sophomore, so they've been through it and have a little experience."
One aspect that has not been as consistent for the Raiders has been their defense, which Zimmerman said was their best attribute during last season's 6-7 campaign.
"We tried to build on that this year and it seems that it's slipped a little bit," Zimmerman said. "I think the kids had the attitude of, 'We were really good last year, so we're going to be even better this year,' and didn't think they needed to work at it. But that mindset has started change and we've seen that change in the games as of late too."
Nicollet is currently 6-2 in the Valley Conference, which houses No. 8 Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton and No. 15 Mankato Loyola, both of which are tied for the conference lead at 4-1. Also receiving votes in the state rankings from the Valley are Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial and Martin County West.
Competition won't get any easier for Nicollet in the North Subsection of Section 2A, which consists of No. 1 BOLD, No. 3 New Ulm Cathedral and No. 5 Sleepy Eye St. Mary's as its most potent contenders.
"We have a very strong section, but as a coaching staff, I'm trying to put us in the best possible position to compete with those teams," Zimmerman said. "I can't control the teams that we play, we just try to control what we can control and hopefully the outcome is in our favor."