The Nisswa Lightning amateur baseball team has two players with area connections who are contributing to their success this summer.
The Lightning, who can return to the Class C state tournament for the second time in four seasons with a victory over Freeport on Saturday, Aug. 2, are sparked in the playoffs by a number of players, including two with local ties in Jason Roepke and Tyler Wittwer.
Roepke, who leads the team in numerous hitting and pitching categories. Besides living nearby in Breezy Point, the 31-year-old Roepke will also be teaching in the Pequot Lakes School District this fall after teaching and coaching softball at Pine River-Backus in recent years.
Roepke played a key role in helping the Lightning win the regular season title in the Victory League North Division, and then helping the team compile a 4-1 record in the playoffs.
"It has been a lot of fun," said Roepke, who has 10 hits, three homers and 11 RBI in five playoff games. "It's nice to hop in the car and be a the field in less than 10 minutes."
Through 22 games, Roepke led Nisswa with a .445 batting average and 10 homers and driving in 33 runs. As a pitcher this season, Roepke has compiled a 5-0 record with a 2.08 earned-run average and a team-high 36 strikeouts.
"This is my fourth year playing in Nisswa, and it has been nice getting to know the community," Roepke said. "The city treats us well. They let us play night games and have a nice field."
Wittwer is also playing close to home as an outfielder with the Lightning. The 2008 Pequot Lakes graduate lives just a few miles north of the downtown Nisswa baseball park.
"It's great to play so close to home," said the 24-year-old Wittwer. "I'm working in Brainerd and living in Pequot Lakes, so the field is in between everything. My parents (Kevin and Gretchen) also enjoy watching the games. The town also provides a great atmosphere, especially with kids coming back to watch after attending our youth camps."
Wittwer has played in 18 of the team's 22 games, and is batting .333 with three home runs, 18 RBI, 18 walks and 24 runs scored. In the playoffs, Wittwer has four doubles and scored four times while also seeing time in center field replacing the injured Drew Boland.
"I typically play the corners of the outfield, but Drew's injury opened up an opportunity for me to play more positions," he said. "I did play a little center field as a freshman and sophomore in high school."
Wittwer was a four-year varsity baseball player for the Patriots. He also played five seasons for the Crosslake/Fifty Lakes American Legion team, before playing at Central Lakes College. While at CLC, Wittwer's teammate was Aaron Jenkins, who is the current player/manager for the Lightning.
"Aaron asked me to play," Wittwer said. "The (Lightning) was moving to play in Nisswa, and Aaron knew I was from that area, and that I would be sticking around for a few years."
Wittwer was part of a Lightning squad that quickly put together a winning tradition by qualifying for state in 2011 and winning the Victory League North regular season titles in 2012 and 2014.
"Our first year in Nisswa we played teams north of us in the Lake and Pine League. The next year we switched to the Victory League, which has been great because its a very competitive league."
After suffering their only playoff loss on Sunday, July 27, by an 8-6 score against Lastrup, the Lightning would like to add another chapter to their early success story with a win on Saturday against Freeport. They would advance to state as one of four teams from Region 8C, which consists of 19 teams from the Victory League.
"We just need to beat Freeport on Saturday," Wittwer said. "I think we matchup well with them. We didn't play our kind of baseball (in losing to Lastrup). We made a couple mental mistakes, and errors. We had one bad inning (allowing six runs in the sixth)."
Roepke agrees that Nisswa can bounce back.
"We gave away an opportunity against Lastrup," he said. "I am looking forward to playing Freeport. I played against them a few times when I played for Norway Lake (amateur team) while I was in college at Southwest State (Marshall). They're down a little this year, but they're still a good team."