The Firebird Family, Baseball Edition: Devils Lake 15-U team leaves winning mark
DEVILS LAKE – There was no time to waste for the Devils Lake Firebirds 15-U Baseball team.
Benjamin Larson understood the assignment all too well. He didn't talk the talk, either. He walked it. Although not in much of a literal sense.
Although the pitcher/third baseman allowed two baserunners via the free pass against the Mandan 15s in Devils Lake's opening tournament game in the 2022 North Dakota Babe Ruth 15-U State Tournament in Jamestown (July 20-24), the 15-year-old in Larson pitched six innings of no-hit baseball en route to his team's 4-0 no-hitter victory on July 22.
Parker Brodina knew how to follow up on the assignment, too. During Devils Lake's game against the West Fargo Rattlers 15-U team, Brodina – another 15-year-old pitcher/third baseman – twirled six shutout innings of one-run and no-hit ball that eventually netted the Firebirds another convincing 3-1 win.
Fast forward two more victories, and the Firebirds netted themselves the North Dakota Babe Ruth 15-U Championship title.
"Every team on our schedule played in the state tournament or was a North Dakota Class B Legion team," Devils Lake 15-U head coach Brent Luehring said. "I challenged the kids. I said we were going to play a tough schedule [and] we were going to play kids who were older than us. And they took it on head-on. It made us better in the end."
But the Firebirds didn't set sail toward the North Dakota sunset quite yet. After all, the team had to make a quick turnaround to Rapid City, South Dakota, to participate in the 2022 Midwest Plains Regional Tournament (July 27-Aug. 1).
As first-year head coach of the 15-U team, Luehring – the Devils Lake High School Baseball head coach – kept the message simple: stick to the process. More specifically, stick to the team's philosophy dating back to the high school season.
In other words, talk the talk, Devils Lake-style.
"We just tried to keep the same as we did all year long," Luehring said. "We weren't really a big gap-to-gap baseball team. We were kind of more of a singles [team] and [moving] guys around. Bunt and run bases. I said we were not going to change our game for anybody. We are going to play the same way that got us there. Throw the ball over the plate, [and] play defense. It was successful during the [Babe Ruth] State Tournament."
A turnaround from one tournament to another meant that, as a team, it was time to get serious once again. And quick.
Of course, you didn't have to tell Larson or Brodina such a statement. It was already ingrained.
"We just got done winning the state championship, and we came home and had practice the next day, just like that," Larson said. "And that practice was kind of like a satisfaction that, finally, more baseball. Finally, get to have fun. And then on the road, got experience [and] got to play more. Playing was just fun."
"It was just a great time," Brodina said. "[Had] fun with our teammates, and we got better competition in the Midwest Plains [Regional Tournament]."
After losing their first two games of the 2022 Midwest Plains Regional Tournament (9-5 losses to Missouri 15-U and Albany), the Firebirds rebounded in more ways than one. After all, the Firebirds outscored opponents, 39-3, in their 23-3 and 16-0 wins over the Rapid City Playmakers and Buckley (July 30 and 31, respectively). Larson pitched a 13-strikeout six-inning complete game during the latter performance.
"It took us a while to settle in, and once we got things going, those two games in a row where we kind of built on it," Luehring said. "Our bats kind of broke out. Hitting is contagious, so once we get a couple going, it just seemed like we kept going."
An 8-1 loss to the Rapid City Sliders on Aug. 1 concluded Devils Lake's Midwest Plains Regional Tournament run. The Firebirds finished the tournament with a 2-3 record.
Even still, the back-to-back tournament runs helped exemplify what Luehring wished to implement. An extra month or two with players he had familiarity with from the high school season didn't hurt, either.
"They know they can compete against anybody," Luehring said. "They know that. They know what I think of them. That was a big thing for me. Two, three more months with them, getting into August. Just development. [With] my coaching philosophies and the way I think the game should be played, I was able to take 13 kids and get three more months with them, and they all grew in a positive way. Challenged them. Kids played different positions. Overall, for my program, and the way I think of things, it was just a big growth period, for sure."
From walking the walk during games to enjoying off-time away from the baseball diamond, Larson found the experience as a strengthening one.
Of course, such strength-building comes easy with those you consider family.
"It felt like a big family out there," Larson said. "We're all just hanging out, being goofy, having fun. I mean, we were just all together, and that's all matters."
No time wasted.
John Crane is a sports/general assignment reporter for the Devils Lake Journal. Feel free to contact John via work phone (701-922-1372), cell phone (701-230-4339), email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter (@johncranesports) with any story ideas.