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Pete's Point: Lightning, Rebels build on rivalry

Sometimes it takes decades for two sports teams to establish a competitive rivalry.

But a solid rivalry between the Nisswa Lightning and Fort Ripley Rebel amateur baseball teams only took a couple of seasons.

The two teams have battled closely as Victory League North Division favorites the past four seasons, and then they extended that rivalry into key playoff games at the division and regional levels.

"We have a great rivalry," said Nisswa manager/player Aaron Jenkins. "We're two of the better teams in league. And we're also close since a lot of players on both teams are from Brainerd and have known each other for years. We also play each other a lot each year - twice in the regular season and once or twice a year in the playoffs."

This season, Nisswa and Fort Ripley split their regular season games against each other. The two teams also each had 9-2 records in Victory League action, but the Lightning earned the North title on a tiebreaker for most wins in the division. That title gives Nisswa the top seed and home advantage for the division playoffs.

"It was huge to win the division," said Jenkins, whose squad also earns an automatic spot in the region tournament. "Last year, Fort Ripley won our division and we won the division in 2012. Fort Ripley also beat us four times and won the division in 2011, but we came back to beat them in the region final to advance to state."

Nisswa is scheduled to open the playoffs by hosting Cuyuna Range at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 12, in the first round of the division playoffs. Earlier that day, Fort Ripley is set to play St. Mathias in the other division playoff.

"Our team has a lot of baseball experience, not just as amateurs, but also as college players and professionals," Jenkins said. "That helps in pressure situations like the playoffs. We know what it takes to win."

Although the Lightning were no-hit in their final regular season game, a 6-0 loss to Fort Ripley on Saturday, July 5, Jenkins said his squad's strength is hitting.

"Our teams are the exact opposite," he said comparing the Lighting with the Rebels. "Our strength is hitting and their strength is pitching. We just ran into a tough pitcher (Ethan Branum) in the loss to Fort Ripley. There's not a whole lot that we can do."

Through 19 games, the Lightning were led offensively by Drew Boland, who batted .441, Jason Roepke (.440) and Aaron Jenkins (.379). Jeremiah Piepkorn led the team with seven homers while Roepke had six and Luke Schumer four. Piepkork also had a team-high 31 RBI while Roepke drove in 22 and Aaron Jenkins 19.

Other top averages for regulars in the lineup were Piepkorn (.357), Tyler Wittwer (.353), Morgan Shepherd (.309), Mark Germain (.298), Schumer (.267) and Brett Jenkins (.254).

As for pitching, Roepke led the Lighting in innings at 37 and strikeouts with 33. He also had a team-high five winnings while compiling a 1.70 earned-run average. Brett Jenkins pitched 31 innings and had 23 strikeouts with a 4.35 ERA. Kyle Schaible and Schumer both pitched 27 ⅔ innings as Schaible had 18 strikeouts and a 5.86 ERA while Schumer fanned 22 hitters with a 7.16 ERA.

"I'm not sure who we will start on the mound for us," Jenkins said of the playoff opener against Cuyuna Range on July 12. "The second round game would be the next day (Sunday, July 13). We really want to win the division playoff and get the No. 1 seed. Then you would face the No. 2 team in the South Division, and get the first draft pick (pitchers from eliminated teams)."