The Northwoods League (NWL) is comprised of 22 teams and is known for its storied past of serving as a training ground for coaches, umpires, front office staff, and more than 200 players who went on to play in Major League Baseball (MLB). Some of the more notable baseball players to come out of the NWL include World Series Champions Ben Zobrist, Max Scherzer, Brandon Crawford, and Chris Sale. In early June, the MLB held an abbreviated draft of just five rounds that saw 20 former NWL athletes picked, showing the league is as strong as ever.
Sam Forkert became the first Sabre to play in the NWL in 2012 when he joined the Madison Mallards in the middle of the summer. That first season saw him make 21 appearances with a 2-3 record to go with a 4.64 earned run average over 42.2 innings and 37 strikeouts.
“I really felt lucky to be chosen by the Madison Mallards and become the first Sabre to compete in the NWL,” commented Forkert. “I happened to know the owner and he showed my stats to the general manager which led to a 10-day contract the day after I happened to pitch a no-hitter. A perfect example of better lucky than good and that timing is everything.”
Then in 2013, he would sign a full season contract with the Mallards along with teammate Brandon Winfield who signed a full season contract with the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters. Forkert would go on to earn a spot on the all-star team that season, a memory he still remembers today.
“Watching balls get hit 500 feet in the home run derby, and when I finally got to pitch watching 50 scouts put up a radar gun after every pitch I would throw,” commented Forkert on his biggest memory during his NWL career. “It was seven years ago now and I still remember everything, it was like a dream. One of the best experiences of my life and definitely the best summer of baseball I have ever had.”
The first position player to earn a shot in the NWL would come in 2015 when Earl Vorpagel signed on with the Green Bay Bullfrogs.
In recent history, Marian has been able to take advantage of an expanding NWL and have sent eight different student-athletes to the NWL in the past four summers. Jordan Bock became the trendsetter when he signed on with the Fond du Lac Dock Spiders for their inaugural season in 2017. Brady Nehring would join Bock later in the summer and this helped set the trend of Marian baseball players going to the NWL as Marian has sent multiple student-athletes to the league every year since.
“On a macro level, it continues to show the growth of our program,” commented head coach Jordan Baitinger on what the rise of student-athletes earning a chance at the NWL means for the Sabre baseball program. “More importantly, it demonstrates the commitment that these players have made to get better. Testing themselves against some of the most talented players in the country.”
Bock would earn a second stint in the NWL in 2018, this time with the Bismarck Larks, and was joined by Ty Peccioli and Zach Sandoval who would play for the Madison Mallards and Dock Spiders, respectively. Last season, the Sabres had their strongest representation in the NWL with four student-athletes earning playing time in the league. Sean Meyer and Garrett Martin each would play for the Green Bay Booyah, while Nick Dugandzic represented Marian with the Dock Spiders. Jonah Landowski joined the group later in the summer playing for the Kenosha Kingfish.
When student-athletes return to Marian in the fall the learning experience certainly makes them better players in several aspects of the game. For Baitinger, the biggest difference he sees is simple, maturity.
“They have been experienced a high level of baseball and they understand the amount of work it takes to be great at a higher level,” commented Baitinger.
Some recent student-athletes who participated in the NWL echo those comments saying they were able to gain confidence while becoming better ballplayers during their time with the league.
“My biggest takeaway was that I can compete with guys at different levels of college baseball,” commented Meyer. “Playing in Green Bay showed me that even though my competition might be on Division I or Division II rosters, I was still able to step in the box and compete against them. Also, it showed me that being a good person goes a long way. When at the stadiums and representing the team, we were expected to be respectful to everyone we encountered. This helped me grow as a person by communicating with fans and spectators as well as teammates and coaches.”
Dugandzic added, “Some of the biggest things I learned was how to manage time and take care of my body. During that time it really helped me prepare and make sure I was in the best possible shape to compete physically and mentally. I was also able to learn a lot about pitch calling and working on relationships with my pitchers in a short time.”
Being the most recent Sabre to compete for the hometown Dock Spiders, Dugandzic also appreciated the opportunity to represent the city of Fond du Lac along with Marian University during his NWL time. “My biggest memory was when I was able to start at designated hitter during a home game. The support from the Marian community and hearing ‘Dugo’ chants all game was surreal. I went on to have one of my best games of the season and I’ll always remember members from the Marian community running up to me after the game to congratulate me on the big game.”
While the NWL has had their share of difficulties in the current climate, most league members were able to resume normal activities earlier this month, including the hometown Dock Spiders. The Sabres currently have two student-athletes competing in the NWL this season with Martin joining the Booyah for a second season and Landowski returning to the Kingfish for this upcoming season.
For more information on the Northwoods League please visit https://northwoodsleague.com/.