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Hudson River Rats hope to ride momentum into state playoffs

Hudson River Rats player-manager Jason Hollar is greeted by his teammates after hitting a home run in a 4-1 victory over the Elmwood Expos July 20 at Grandview Park. The River Rats open post-season play this Saturday, Aug. 9, at 3 p.m. in Hallie against the Whitehall Wolves. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Bob Burrows)

Hudson River Rats player-manager Jason Hollar called 2014 an interesting year for the team, but definitely not an easy one.

After qualifying for the 2013 Wisconsin Baseball Association playoffs, the 2014 River Rats opened 2014 with a pedestrian 3-3 record in St. Croix Valley Baseball League play before winning six of their final nine games to earn their second straight postseason berth.

Hudson will open the WBA playoffs in Hallie this Saturday at 3 p.m. against the Whitehall Wolves, regular season champions of the Chippewa River Baseball League.

Hollar said the Rats hope to ride their late-season momentum into the postseason.

“I think we can do very well in the Hallie regional location,” he said. “Even though we don't know much about Whitehall, other than they won the CRBL this year, I feel if we focus on what made the Rats successful this year we should do just fine.”

Hollar said what made the Rats successful this season was persistence. After a so-so start and a cluster of rainouts that forced the team to play nine games in the final two weeks of the season, the Rats took care of business down the stretch.

“I really have to give a nod to the guys for hanging in there and getting after it in the last two weeks of the season,” Hollar said. “It was a lot to ask of them but they got it done and earned their way into the playoffs.”

Hollar said there’s plenty of credit to go around, including a talented pitching rotation that includes Paul Johnson, Brian Sparstad, Travis Borowicz, Kellen Pearson, Austin Booher and Aaron Moen.

“Without the effort of these guys on the mound this year, the Rats would not be in the playoffs,” Hollar stated.

After an earl back injury sidelined Johnson for most of May and June, he returned to lead the River Rats to big wins against Plum City, Bay City, River Falls and Ellsworth.

“Brian Sparstad was also a huge contributor,” Hollar said. “He was the guy that would step up on days and eat up innings, allowing us to save some arms, especially during the last two weeks of our season.”

Offensively, Hollar said Andy Edholm, Mitch Lewis, Pearson and Brent Blegen lead the Rats effort to put pressure on opposing teams’ pitching and defense.

“These guys are by far one of the best groups of guys I have had the pleasure of playing with because they all know their roles on the team and are willing to put the team ahead of their own well-being,” Hollar said. “Not only that, but they all know how to be leaders and they play the game with a lot of intensity and intelligence. If you were to take a look at all the box scores this year, you would see the names of these four guys consistently putting up the numbers that lead to W's in the win column.”

Hollar also praised the play of two of the team’s rookies -- 2014 Hill-Murray graduate Andrew Traeger and 2014 Hudson High School grad Hunter Frey -- this season.

“We were extremely lucky and thrilled to have Andrew Traeger and Hunter Frey join the team this year,” he said. “Andrew is one of those guys who works extremely hard and does everything in his will power to get the job done. Just off the top of my head I can think of a handfull of times where we would need a base runner or a big hit and he would come up to the plate and get it done.”

Hollar called Frey a spark plug at the top of the River Rats batting order and a valuable addition to the team’s infield.

“He has played pretty much every position in the infield aside from first base,” Hollar said. “I feel lucky of having the luxury of having Hunter on the team because I can put him at every position and know that he will make the routine plays as well as turn in some real web gems.”

The River Rats added to their lineup by picking up longtime Elmwood Expo Eric Konsala for the postseason.

“Eric is a great guy that I have had the pleasure of getting to know through my eight years of playing in the SCVBL,” Hollar said. “He mainly plays shortstop or second base for the Expos but he has been known to play anywhere his team needs him. The reason we drafted Eric is because he is a great asset to our team as he has a good bat and can add some pop to our lineup."

If Hudson beats Whitehall Saturday they will play either fellow SCVBL member Ellsworth or the Sparta Millers of the Mississippi Valley League Sunday at 3 p.m. in Hallie for a berth in the WBA finals Aug. 15-17 in Ellsworth and River Falls.

“Ellsworth could be a possible opponent if both of us win our first round games,” Hollar noted. “I think that would be a fun showdown as I am always excited to see SCVBL teams do well in the tournament. No matter what happens, this is an exciting time of year because everybody gets the pleasure of watching playoff baseball and seeing the product of all the hard work the playoff teams have put in this year to make it to August.”

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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