ST. PAUL — After seemingly coming out of nowhere to win the Tri-River Conference a year ago, the St. Paul baseball team continued to raise its profile this spring.
That included an eight-game winning streak down the stretch that helped the Bucks finish in a three-way tie for second place before losing a tiebreaker game to Western Mennonite for the league's third playoff bid.
Do-everything sophomore Justin Herberger was a driving force for the team's success and is also enjoying the benefits of higher visibility now that honors are being handed out.
Behind some gaudy statistics, Herberger was not only named Tri-River Conference Pitcher of the Year, but also received first-team All-State accolades as an outfielder.
"He's young, but he's been playing well beyond his age," SPHS coach Julio Vela said. "The more the season wore on, the stronger he seemed to get, right up to the last game he pitched."
On the mound, Herberger racked up 93 strikeouts compared to five walks, meaning that for every one walk, he struck out 18.6 batters. In 51 innings, Herberger compiled a 1.50 ERA and a .857 WHIP (walks hits per inning pitched) while throwing his first pitch for a strike 67.9 percent of the time.
"He was throwing a lot of strikes, keeping us right there in the game," Vela said. "He did a great job and I think it's a well-deserved honor."
At the plate, Herberger led the team in just about every offensive category, including a .442 average, a .500 on-base percentage (OBP), 37 RBIs, seven doubles, seven triples and two home runs.
He was joined on the first team by outfielders Campbell Smith and Rawley Koch.
Smith hit .382 and was second on the team with 17 RBIs and 12 walks, but Vela was most impressed with how the junior played on defense.
"I think his mentality this year really became if I can touch it, I can catch it," Vela said. "He worked hard on the arm strength and accuracy. Until two years ago, he considered himself a first baseman and has become quite an outfielder."
Koch batted ninth for St. Paul and punished opposing pitchers who expected an easy out, finishing second on the team with a .429 average to go along with 15 RBIs and a .473 OBP (on base percentage).
"Rawley was one of those guys that as long as he was in the box, he felt like he was going to rip it hard somewhere," Vela said. "It makes a difference because sometimes a pitcher will let his guard down somewhat when he's reaching the bottom half of the lineup, so a walk or hit here or there, then you follow that with Rawley and then the top of the lineup, it really had great effect for us, especially down the stretch."
Also earning recognition from league coaches were sophomore shortstop Jaidyn Jackson, who was named to the second team, as well as sophomore catcher Zach Brentano and junior first baseman Holden Smith, who received honorable mention.
Vela said he was pleased with how his team was represented, especially considering it loses just one senior from this year's team. More important to him is the maturation the team showed, especially down the stretch.
"As great as it was to make the playoffs for the first time last year, it was as disappointing for us not to make it this year," Vela said. "And I think that sting is going to fuel us, both into the summer season and the offseason. I think these guys have a pretty lofty goal in mind now, especially compared to coming in two or three years ago where it was a hope. Now it's an expectation. I think that's progress."