In 1994, a new baseball league was born, the Northwoods League, beginning with affiliates in Kenosha, Wausau and Manitowoc, Wisconsin; Dubuque, Iowa and Rochester, Minnesota. This League was made up of “All-Star” teams of college players who competed in a 56-game schedule between June and August. Each affiliate was to promote their games just like a professional team would. Fans could look forward to nightly giveaways, concessions, fireworks and many exciting game events. At the end of the first season, approximately 70,000 fans attended Northwoods League games and the Rochester Honkers had claimed the first League title with a 31-15 overall record.
In 1995, the League grew to six affiliates when the Waterloo Bucks (Waterloo, IA) were added. That year also saw the Northwoods League’s first All-Star game. On Saturday, July 22nd, the Wausau Woodchucks hosted the first Northwoods League All-Star game. This All-Star game featured the very best of the NWL. Along with the first All-Star game, the NWL had its first Championship playoff series. The teams with the best records of the first and second half of the season met in a Championship series. Eventually, the Kenosha Kroakers claimed the 1995 title, downing the Manitowoc Skunks two games to none and finishing with an overall record of 40-18.
The 1996 season season started on June 7th with the same six teams comprising the League. This season, the second year affiliate from Waterloo hosted the 2nd Annual NWL All-Star game at Riverfront Stadium in Waterloo, IA. The Waterloo Bucks had earned the right to host the event by setting a single season attendance record in 1995, when 28,745 fans went through the gates in Waterloo. By the end of the regular season and Championship series, the 2nd year Bucks had claimed their first NWL crown, having defeated the Rochester Honkers two games to none.
1997 brought change in the NWL. One of the founding affiliates, the Dubuque Mud Puppies, relocated to St. Cloud, MN and became the St. Cloud River Bats. Besides the location change, the league expanded its schedule of play to 64 games. Since its inception, the League now had 45 alumni playing or signed to play professional baseball. 1997 was the first time in League history that an affiliate won a second NWL title, when the Rochester Honkers defeated the Waterloo Bucks two games to one. The Honkers finished with a 41-21 record. League attendance continued to grow, as over 135,000 fans came through the turnstiles during the season.
In 1998, the League celebrated its five-year anniversary, welcomed three new teams into the League, and moved to a two-division system. With the new teams entering the League, one founding member closed its doors, the Manitowoc Skunks. All three teams joining the NWL were former members of the now defunct Prairie League: Austin, MN, Brainerd, MN and Grand Forks, ND. The five-year old league had grown to eight teams covering four states (Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota). This season, the NWL introduced a divisional playoff scenario, having a first and second half winner meet in a playoff. The winners in each division series then meet in the NWL championship series. Another positive note for the League was that all of the eight teams were playing in ballparks where professional baseball had once been played. In 1998, the second year affiliate, St. Cloud Rivers Bats, took the NWL crown when they defeated the Rochester Honkers two games to none.
1999 saw the first Alumnus of the NWL reach the Big Leagues. Jeff Weaver, a former Dubuque Mud Puppy pitcher, made his first start for the Detroit Tigers on April 14, 1999 against the Minnesota Twins. The year brought about a name change in one founding team. The Wausau Woodchucks became the Wisconsin Woodchucks, representing the only NWL team in the entire state of Wisconsin. This season saw the appearance of a new affiliate and another founding member ceased operations. Entering the League was the Mankato, MN Mashers and the Kenosha Kroakers closed their doors. The annual All-Star game found a preeminent home in St. Cloud with the St. Cloud River Bats team playing host to the event the next several years. 1999 saw the Rochester Honkers earning their third championship crown. The Honkers and the River Bats met in a rematch of the ’98 Championship Series, with the Honkers winning the series two games to one.
The new millennium, 2000, brought more changes for the League and another former NWL player made his debut with the Colorado Rockies. Juan Pierre, former outfielder of the Manitowoc Skunks, suited up for the National League’s Rockies. The League continued to shift, with the Austin Southern Minny Stars moving to Minot, ND, to become the Minot Greenheads. With the increased miles for each team to travel, every NWL squad traveled by coach bus during the season. The St. Cloud River Bats defeated the Waterloo Bucks two games to none to claim their second title. Overall, the League continued to see growth, as more than 217,000 fans witnessed NWL baseball and five of the eight teams set new attendance records. By the end of the season, the NWL had more than 160 alumni that were either active or that had played professional baseball over the course of the last seven years.
The 2001 NWL season brought some great changes for the League. The Grand Forks Channel Cats and the Minot Greenheads ceased operations, while two exciting affiliates opened in Alexandria, MN and Madison, WI. The Madison Mallards represented the largest city to host a NWL team, while the Alexandria Beetles became the smallest. The NWL All-Star Game saw a change as the NWL hosted Team USA in St. Cloud, MN. The NWL All-Stars wound up defeating Team USA, 1-0, in 10 innings. It was the first and only time to date that Team USA had been shut out by a team from the lower 48 states and their only loss to a team from the lower 48 states in 2001. The Wisconsin Woodchucks, one of two remaining inaugural NWL teams, claimed their first NWL Championship. The Woodchucks defeated the St. Cloud River Bats two games to one in the best of three championship series. League attendance continued to rise as more than 273,000 fans attended NWL games, more than any other summer collegiate baseball league at an average of 1,082 per game.
The 2002 NWL season saw single-season league records shattered, a long-time manager earn a Championship and attendance records fall by the wayside. The NWL saves record was broken by Wisconsin’s Steve Grasley (Creighton) who racked up 19, breaking the old record of 15 set by Wisconsin’s Tim McNab (Indiana). Waterloo’s Adam Boeve (Northern Iowa) broke the stolen base record by swiping 43 bases, sliding by the old record of 42 on the last day of the regular season. Two NWL teams broke the team ERA record of 3.04 set by the 2000 St. Cloud squad. Brainerd’s team ERA was an impressive 2.73, but not to be outdone, the Wisconsin Woodchucks posted a remarkable 2.53 team ERA. Long-time Waterloo manager Darrell Handelsman won his first NWL title by leading the Bucks to a 2-0 series win over the Brainerd Mighty Gulls. League attendance continued its unsurpassed growth by ballooning to another record of over 337,000. Average attendance grew from 1,082 in 2001 to 1,365 that summer.
The 2003 season saw a growth spurt with three new teams entering the circuit, bringing the League to 10 members. New affiliates in La Crosse, WI, Duluth, MN and Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada joined the League in 2003 as the Brainerd Mighty Gulls ceased operations following the 2002 campaign. Attendance grew by almost a quarter of a million fans to over 580,000, with the average attendance in the NWL increasing from 1,365 in 2002 to 1,803 in 2003.The Wisconsin Woodchucks won their second NWL Championship in three years, defeating the North Division Champion, St. Cloud River Bats, 2 games to 1, under the direction of former Major League pitcher Steve Foster. David Schultz (Creighton) of the La Crosse Loggers hit 16 home runs, the most by anyone since current Major Leaguer Jay Gibbons hit 17 in 1997. Mike Pankratz (San Jacinto JC) of the Wisconsin Woodchucks was named League MVP after posting a .699 slugging percentage along with 12 home runs. The story in 2003, though, was the pitching, as 5 players entered the top 11 all-time in single-season ERA. Jake Hansen (Northern Iowa) of the Madison Mallards led with a 1.23 ERA, second lowest in NWL history. Flame throwing Thomas Diamond (New Orleans) of the St. Cloud River Bats became the 4th NWL pitcher to strikeout 100 batters in a season as he finished 3rd all-time with 103. His teammate on both fronts (River Bats and New Orleans), JP Martinez, registered 17 saves, second all-time in the NWL. Will Krout (Sonoma State) of the Mankato Moondogs pitched great all summer, posting a League record 7 complete games and 3 shutouts, good for second in League history. The St. Cloud River Bats set a League pitching record for strikeouts and recorded the 2nd lowest ERA in team history.
In 2004, the Northwoods League would continue its trend of breaking records, both on and off the field. Eight of the ten NWL teams shattered their season attendance records, as 626,704 fans turned out for NWL baseball games in the summer of 2004. This number represented a 7.5% increase over the previous year’s total. Leading the way was the Madison Mallards, who drew a NWL record 154,258 for the season including over 10,000 to a regular season game at Warner Park in June. The 2004 baseball season saw six more NWL alumni make their debut in the major leagues, bringing the current total to 19 former NWL players competing in the big leagues. Two former Wisconsin Woodchucks, Ben Zobrist and Jonathan Tierce, won batting titles at the professional level in their first full professional season. In all, seventy NWL alumni were drafted in the June 2004 Major League Baseball amateur draft including the 10th pick overall, Thomas Diamond, by the Texas Rangers. This marked the highest selection in NWL history, suprassing former alumni Jeff Weaver who was picked with the 14th overall pick in 1998. On the field, Rick Cavaiani (UW-Milwaukee) of the Woodchucks tied a team and league record for saves with 19. Ryan Hastings (Illinois) established a new League record with 57 base on balls while playing for Waterloo. His college teammate, Chad Frk, broke the all-time NWL record for games played with 227 from 2001-2004 with Waterloo and Madison. Phillip Hawke (Louisiana-Lafayette) was named League MVP after leading the circuit in home runs (11), RBI (41), and slugging percentage (.510). Hawke, also the winner of the “Star of Stars” award as All-Star game MVP, batted .301 and finished second in the League with a .443 on base percentage. Pitcher Lance Broadway (Texas Christian) finished with 95 strikeouts to lead the league (7th All-Time) while also tossing one of three no-hitters in 2004. Adam Sanabria (Florida) from Rochester and Greg Reinhard (UW-Whitewater) of Wisconsin threw the other no-hitters. The Madison Mallards won their first League championship in 2004 under the guidance of Darrell Handelsman, who was named Manager of the Year in the NWL. The championship marked the 2nd in Handelsman’s career, the only manager in League history to win the title twice. Madison’s pitching staff recorded a 2.54 team ERA, good for 2nd best All-Time in the NWL while four teams struck out 500 or more batters during the season, led by Wisconsin’s 524 strikeouts, placing each in the top 6 All-Time.
Remarkably, the 2005 season witnessed more growth as both two new teams and fans alike accounted for another record-breaking season in the NWL. With the addition of Eau Claire, WI and the re-emergence of the Brainerd, MN franchise, the NWL had expanded to 12 teams in this their 12th year of operation. With growth came more record attendance numbers, as over 775,000 fans turned out for the 2005 season. Leading the way once again was Madison, WI who averaged an astounding 5,738 fans per night on their way to attracting a Summer Collegiate Baseball record of 200,000+ fans to the friendly confines of Warner Park. Ten of the 12 affiliates set new attendance marks with a League-wide average attendance of 1,884. On the diamond, it was the League’s only Canadian entry, the Thunder Bay Border Cats, who took home the coveted hardware when they won the NWL Championship. The Cats, who were making their first playoff appearance, knocked off the defending champion Madison Mallards, 2 games to 1, in an exciting Championship Series witnessed by record crowds the final two games in Thunder Bay. Border Cats reliever Shawn Williams (College of Charleston), son of former Big League Manager of the Year Jimy Williams, set a new NWL saves record with 20, eclipsing the previous mark of 19 established twice in the previous three seasons. Perhaps the biggest on-field story was Waterloo’s Zach Daeges (Creighton), who ended the season as the NWL’s first triple crown winner. The slugging first baseman led the circuit by batting .366, belting 13 home runs and tying for the RBI lead with 48. However, Madison outfielder Ryan Rogowski (Illinois) claimed the MVP award by hitting .345 and leading the NWL in hits (86), triples (5), runs (52), and setting the all-time stolen base mark with 44. Alexandria, MN hosted its first All-Star game before a record crowd of 1,857 in July. Once again, the NWL had over 70 players drafted in the MLB Amateur draft in June and watched six of its former alumni make their Major League debut in 2005, bringing the total to 25 former players to have gone on to play in the Big Leagues.
The 2006 season saw continued growth as the Northwoods League broke another attendance record as over 813,000 fans came through the gates. The Madison Mallards led the way, drawing over 6,000 fans nightly to Warner Park, fondly known as “The Duck Pond”. Eight of the twelve Northwoods affiliates set new attendance records in the League’s 13th season of play, as the average attendance League-wide ballooned to 1,989 per game.
The Rochester Honkers won the Championship in record-setting fashion, finishing with a 50-17 record, prior to sweeping through the playoffs with four straight victories. They defeated the Madison Mallards in the divisional championship, before knocking off the defending Northwoods League Champion Thunder Bay Border Cats in the championship series. The Honkers were led by reliever Jake Toohey (Illinois) who set a Northwoods League record for saves with 24 and all-purpose first baseman/pitcher Efren Navarro (UNLV) who was named the League MVP.
The League’s All-Star game flourished in La Crosse, WI as former Major League Manager Bob Brenly addressed the All-Stars at a gala luncheon prior to the combine and game attended by a bevy of Major League Scouts and over 3,400 fans. Brenly’s son Michael (UNLV), played for the La Crosse Loggers in 2006, and Oney Guillen (North Park, IL), son of Major League Manager Ozzie Guillen played in Thunder Bay.
Pitching dominated the scene in 2006 as only five batters hit above the coveted .300 batting average. The Madison Mallards set a League record for Team ERA as they posted a 2.17 ERA. Pitcher Charlie Shirek (Nebraska) set the career ERA record for all Northwoods League pitchers as he posted a 1.47 ERA in his two seasons as a Duluth Huskie.
The Major League Amateur Draft saw a record 96 current or former Northwoods players taken as the League’s talent continues to escalate and gain recognition from Major League teams. For the third consecutive season, the League had a former pitcher drafted in the first round as former La Crosse Logger Max Scherzer (Missouri) was the 11th pick overall. He follows former St. Cloud River Bat Thomas Diamond (New Orleans) 10th overall in 2004, and former Wisconsin Woodchuck Lance Broadway (Texas Christian) 15th overall in 2005.
Nine Northwoods League alumni made their debut in Major League Baseball in 2006, bringing the total to 35 former players who have gone on to shine in the Majors.
In 2007 the Northwoods League got bigger and better, once again, by growing in size, expanding to a new media frontier, breaking more records, and having dozens of alumni advance their baseball careers. The League grew to 14 teams with the addition of the Battle Creek, MI Bombers and the Green Bay, WI Bullfrogs. The Battle Creek affiliate became the first Michigan entry and the League now had a presence in four U.S. states plus the Canadian province of Ontario. However, it was the Green Bay Bullfrogs that made the big splash on the field as they became the first expansion team to reach the playoffs after running away with the South Division first half championship. They accomplished this, in part, by breaking a nine year old League record for consecutive victories by winning 15 straight games in June, to snap the mark of 14 set by the 1998 St. Cloud River Bats. Amazingly, that record didn’t even hold for a season, as the Madison Mallards strung together 16 straight wins late in the year in their failed pursuit of the Eau Claire Express who won their first division championship. Both Eau Claire and the North Division’s Duluth Huskies were steamrolled in consecutive playoff games by an emotional St. Cloud River Bats team who swept their way to a third League Championship. St. Cloud’s triumph came nine days after the death of 19 year old pitcher Richie Gargel (Temple) who suffered fatal injuries in a swimming accident.
St. Cloud’s season began with a stadium change, the first such instance in League history. The River Bats moved across the parking lot from their ten-year home of Dick Putz Field to their new home, the upgraded Joe Faber Field. This park, and the other 13 League-wide, combined to set another League attendance record with more than 854,000 fans watching NWL action in 2007. The League was again paced by Madison, which topped 200,000 fans for the second straight season and the one-million mark overall in their seventh year. Eight teams set their own single-game attendance record on a given night during the ’07 season. The Mankato MoonDogs were one of those teams, who in addition had an even larger crowd of 2,319 when they hosted the annual Northwoods League All-Star Game on July 11th. That record crowd saw local favorite and MoonDog third baseman Nate Hanson (Minnesota) get the game-winning hit and earn the “Star of Stars” game MVP honor. Hanson went on to earn even more hardware by winning the batting title with a .363 average, the Rawlings Defensive Player of the Year (formerly Silver Glove) at third base, and a new Northwoods League award, the Rawlings Offensive Player of the Year that was issued to the top hitter at each position. The League MVP award was shared for the first time as Eau Claire outfielder/closer Kole Calhoun (Yavapai) and Green Bay outfielder Daniel Robertson (Concordia-Irvine) received Co-MVP honors. Robertson and Duluth second baseman Joe Bonadonna (Illinois) share a new League record having both stolen 45 bases in the 2007 season. Bonadonna, in his third year with the Huskies, tied the career mark with 75 steals. Other records set in ’07 include Mankato’s Chad Dawson (Indiana State) breaking the career saves mark by four, with 32, in two seasons and Brainerd Blue Thunder outfielder Andy Dirks (Wichita State) reaching base safely in 52 consecutive games to snap the old record of 50 set back in 1995.
The entire Northwoods League was showcased to a nationally televised audience for the first time with coverage provided by ESPNU. Three games, including the All-Star Game, and eleven 30-minute episodes of “Northwoods Baseball Weekly” aired throughout the summer on the specialized college sports network. In the meantime, NWL Alumni were advancing their careers with nine more players making their Major League debut to bring the League total to 44, and a record 120 players getting their named called during the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
In 2008, the Northwoods League celebrated its 15th anniversary season and accomplished some milestones along the way. Many of the milestones were because of great accomplishments by League alumni. In June, 141 current and former NWL players were selected in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft. This number dramatically eclipsed the previous record of 120 set a year earlier. In all, six players that once donned Northwoods League uniforms debuted at the Major League level in 2008. Max Scherzer (La Crosse, 2004) first appeared for the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 29th. His debut was one of the best debuts in Major League history with the right-handed pitcher entering the game in relief and throwing 4.1 perfect innings while striking out seven. In September when Casey McGehee (St. Cloud, 2001) joined the Chicago Cubs he became the 50th NWL alumnus to appear on a big league roster. Baltimore Orioles closer George Sherrill (Kenosha, 1997-98) became the first NWL alum to appear in a Major League all-star game when he pitched 2.1 scoreless innings in July’s 15-inning classic.
The present day NWL players were seen in a new way in 2008. The League launched a new website in May, northwoodsleague.tv, which allowed fans from around the world for the first time to watch any game on the NWL schedule live or archived via a video webcast. For the second consecutive year fans from across the country viewed the NWL All-Star Game on ESPNU. The South All-Stars defeated the North 8-4 at Warner Park in Madison, WI on July 11th in front of an all-star game record crowd of 5,357. Madison set a summer collegiate baseball record totaling 207,949 fans through their gates during the 2008 regular season. Madison’s 6,116 and La Crosse’s average of 3,319 fans per game represented the two highest averages in all of Summer Collegiate Baseball. Madison and five other NWL affiliates set a team attendance record for per game average.
The success stories of some teams in attendance weren’t felt by the Northwoods League as a whole. The League took a step back in overall attendance for the first time since 1996. This happened in part due to arguably the worst year for weather in NWL history. Twenty-four games were rained out and a number more were suspended shortly after starting. The Waterloo Bucks were displaced from Riverfront Stadium for 33 days due to the ballpark flooding in June. They were to play 16 games at Riverfront during that stretch. Instead, two were cancelled and the other 14 were played either on the road or a high school field in Waterloo drawing far fewer fans than they would have under normal circumstances. For the second time in four years the Thunder Bay Border Cats overcame one of the more difficult travel schedules in the League to take home the Northwoods League Championship. Playing the finale at home at Port Arthur Stadium, Thunder Bay defeated Madison two games to one in thrilling come-from-behind fashion. Wisconsin and Mankato were the other playoff participants with the MoonDogs being led by NWL MVP Carlos Ramirez (Chandler-Gilbert CC) and Manager of the Year Jason Nell (Iowa Lakes CC).
In 2009, it was former Northwoods League players making the headlines early in the summer. Another great Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in June saw 136 NWL alums selected including four in the first round. Catcher Tony Sanchez (Battle Creek, 2007) went fourth overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates to become the highest drafted alumni in the history of the Northwoods League. Outfielders Brett Jackson (La Crosse, 2007) and Tim Wheeler (St. Cloud, 2007) were selected later in the first round by the Cubs and Rockies, respectively, while pitcher Victor Black (La Crosse, 2007) joined Sanchez with the Pirates after being picked in the compensation portion of round one. Later in the summer Curtis Granderson (Mankato, 2001) of the Tigers and Ben Zobrist (Wisconsin, 2003) of the Rays were teammates for a day with the American League All-Star team, becoming the first duo of NWL alums to accomplish that feat. Another ten former NWLers debuted in the big leagues in 2009 to bring the all-time list to 60.
The Northwoods League All-Star Game stretched beyond the U.S. borders for the first time in 2009 with Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada serving as the host. Fans and players alike were treated by the presence of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup as Thunder Bay native Jordan Staal of the champion Pittsburgh Penguins – and baseball Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins – spread some Canadian pride. With 50 of the best NWL players on one field, it was the South Division that earned the 4-2 victory. Madison Mallard outfielder Kurtis Muller (Iowa) was awarded the Star-of-Stars game MVP award with his three-hit, two stolen-base performance in front of 2,256 fans.
For the fifth time in 16 years the Rochester Honkers proved to be the best team by winning the NWL Championship. At home at Mayo Field, the Honkers took down the La Crosse Loggers with a 7-4 game-three victory. The Honkers and Loggers both won their divisional playoff series in two games over the Mankato MoonDogs and Eau Claire Express, respectively. The Honkers were led by NWL MVP Corey Jones (Cal State Fullerton) whose .315 average, 13 home runs, and 43 RBI show that he was an offensive force throughout the season. Field Manager Rusty McNamara (UC Riverside) and Assistant Coach Joe Cotton (Bowling Green State) earned Manager and Coach of the Year Awards, respectively, in leading the Honkers to a 42-26 regular season record.
In the months following the 2009 season it was announced that the Northwoods League would be expanding to 16 teams in 2010. The Willmar (MN) Stingers were unveiled in December and will join the North Division while the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters became the newest member of the South Division in January.
In 2010, the Northwoods League celebrated its 17th season by welcoming two new organizations, introducing intra-divisional scheduling, and saw the most NWL alumni ever drafted. The Northwoods League also expanded the NWL brand with a four-camera webcast of all NWL games, the introduction of the first virtual media guide and the inaugural season of NWL Fantasy Baseball.
The Northwoods League added two teams to the league in 2010 with the Willmar Stingers joining the North Division and the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters becoming the eighth team in the South. The addition of the two teams created a new intra-divisional format which consisted of two eight-team divisions. The intra-divisional format allowed for teams to play within the division only and drastically reduced travel for NWL teams.
In early June the Northwoods League experienced another record-setting Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft as 157 players were selected. The 157 players are 21 more draftees than 2009 and 15 players were taken in the first five rounds. Chris Sale (La Crosse ’08) was the highest pick of the NWL in 2010 as the Chicago White Sox selected him 13th overall. This marked the seventh consecutive draft that a Northwoods League alumnus has been selected in either the first round or the compensation round that followed. Past NWL Most Valuable Player award winners Corey Jones (Rochester ’09) and Kole Calhoun (Eau Claire ’07) were drafted in the 7th and 8th rounds, respectively.
The nations’ premier summer collegiate league continued marketing the NWL brand with new and innovative ways. The NWL added a four-camera video system in all 16 ballparks across the league to enhance the webcasts of the games on NorthwoodsLeague.tv. A Virtual Guide allowed for all NWL fans to learn about the league in a new, tech friendly way. NWL Fantasy Baseball provided a new way for fans to follow the Northwoods League and its alumni while having a chance to win part of $2,000 in prizes.
The 2010 NWL Playoffs saw the Rochester Honkers take on the St. Cloud River Bats in the North Division Playoffs and the Eau Claire Express face the Wisconsin Woodchucks in the South Division. Rochester made the playoffs by winning the North Division 1st Half while the St. Cloud River Bats won the 2nd Half. Eau Claire won both the 1st and 2nd Half South Division titles and the Wisconsin Woodchucks were the South Division Playoff representative as they finished 2nd overall in the South Division.
The Summer Collegiate World Series pitted the Eau Claire Express versus the Rochester Honkers. The Eau Claire Express, managed by NWL Manager of the Year Dale Varsho, beat the Honkers in the three-game series to earn the title ‘Northwoods League Champions’ for the first time in franchise history. The Express earned ‘Summer League Team of the Year’ by Perfect Game Baseball as they finished the season 52-24.
All-Star festivities in July consisted of a banquet at Florian Gardens in Eau Claire, home run derby, professional scout workout, All-Star game and post-game fireworks. The banquet featured former Minnesota Twin and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew. The home run derby was won by Duluth Huskie Mark Threlkeld (Louisiana Tech) with nine home runs in the in the three-round format. Threlkeld beat Madison Mallard Kyle Gaedele (Valparaiso) in the final round. Nearly 4,000 fans witnessed the 2010 All-Star game at Carson Park, home of the Eau Claire Express. NWL fans in attendance saw a great game that ended in a North Division 7-5 win thanks to the ‘Star of Stars’ Cody Asche (Nebraska) of the Duluth Huskies who went 2-for-4 with two RBI on the night.
Individual postseason awards were dominated by two teams, the Eau Claire Express and St. Cloud River Bats. Dale Varsho was awarded ‘Manager of the Year’ while Eau Claire Express Assistant Coach Shawn Peck was given ‘Coach of the Year’. The St. Cloud River Bats had both the ‘Player of the Year’ and ‘Pitcher of the Year’. Shortstop Steve Nyisztor (Rutgers) won ‘Most Valuable Player’ after finishing in the top-10 in hits (85), RBI (56), homeruns (8), triples (6) and at-bats (278). The athletic shortstop was also named NWL Top Prospect by Baseball America. Teammate Jason Wheeler (Loyola Marymount) won ‘Pitcher of the Year’ while leading the league with an 8-1 record and a 1.35 ERA. The lanky lefty held opponents under a .200 batting average and led the league in strikeouts with 74.
The 2011 Season saw many more Northwoods League records broken as the League became the first Summer-Collegiate League to draw over 900,000 fans to its parks as five teams set attendance records. Andrew Knapp (California) led the League in hitting with a .400 batting average, becoming the first player to hit .400 in a season since the ’90’s and Shaun Cooper (Utah) hit 20 Home Runs to set the League record while hitting 36 more during a fantastic power display to win the Northwoods League All-Star Game Home Run Derby. Cooper also had 63 RBI, set the Northwoods League record for Total Bases with 163, stole 15 bases and had a slugging percentage of .675 in one of the most productive summer-collegiate seasons in history, leading the Mankato MoonDogs to the Summer Collegiate World Series versus the eventual Northwoods League Champions, the Battle Creek Bombers. The Alexandria Beetles and Green Bay Bullfrogs were runners-up in the North and South Divisions, respectively.
The Bombers won their first Championship behind the leadership of former Major-Leaguer, Donnie Scott, who came to the team after having a very successful run as a Minor League manager in the Cincinnati Reds organization. The Bombers won both halves of the South Division season, winning 11 straight games to end the season with a 47-26 overall record. Daniel Rockett (UT-San Antonio) led the Bombers in the playoffs as the flashy centerfielder hit four home runs to add to his eight during the regular season, along with 53 RBI, second in the League to Cooper.
Dan Olinger (Minnesota) of the Brainerd Lunkers won the All-Star game MVP award, perhaps inspired by All-Star guest speaker, Hall-of-Famer and University of Minnesota alum, Paul Molitor. The game was played in front of a capacity crowd at second-year entry Wisconsin Rapids’ Witter Field, a former Minnesota Twins affiliate facility in the Midwest League.
The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft saw another record 174 Northwoods League players and Alums chosen by Major League teams. Chris Reed (Stanford), a left-handed pitcher from the Wisconsin Woodchucks was the 16th player taken overall. This was the eighth consecutive year a Northwoods League player had been taken in the first round or compensation round. 40 Northwoods League players or alums were taken in the Top Ten Rounds. 467 Northwoods League players and alumni had been chosen in the last three MLB Drafts.
Post-season awards went to Donnie Scott, Manager of the Year, Cooper as Most Valuable Player and Mankato teammate Blake Schwartz (Minnesota State-Mankato), Pitcher of the Year, with a 6-1 record, a 1.71 Earned Run Average, while striking out 75 batters in 61 innings pitched. Mankato Coach, Jason Ramos, was named Coach of the Year.
The League’s webcasts experienced 869,425 streams being viewed by watchers in over 100 different countries.
2012 continued the offensive onslaught previewed by Shaun Cooper’s (Utah) record setting performance in 2011. Freshman Ben Moore (Alabama) won the Northwoods League’s Most Valuable Player Award, playing for the Alexandria Beetles, by slugging 16 Home Runs and setting a single season RBI record with an astounding 84 RBI in 65 games played. The Northwoods League also broke the single-season attendance record for Summer-Collegiate baseball by drawing 946,611 fans led by the Madison Mallards who broke their previously held Summer-Collegiate single-season attendance record, drawing 217,143 to their home games and another 6,073 fans to the Northwoods League All-Star game, setting another League record.
The League welcomed a new member, the Lakeshore Chinooks, with Hall-of-Famers Robin Yount and Bob Uecker as part of an impressive ownership group and said good bye to the Brainerd Lunkers to complete the 16-team circuit. The Chinooks, playing in a newly constructed venue overlooking the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan on the campus of Concordia University, entered the South Division while the Waterloo Bucks moved to the North Division to replace Brainerd.
The League introduced the Northwoods League Studio to accentuate their League-wide webcasts, offering pre-game and post-game analysis and highlights on a daily basis, attracting over 33,000 video streams over the course of the summer.
On the field, the La Crosse Loggers claimed the Northwoods League Championship, winning the Summer Collegiate World Series in consecutive games over the Mankato MoonDogs who were runner-ups for the second consecutive summer. The Loggers swept the South Division Championship over the Wisconsin Woodchucks who valiantly fell, holding the ninth inning lead in both contests. Mankato beat Willmar in a three-game series in the North Division. Coach Andy McKay led the Loggers to the title after five years at the helm, compiling a 53-21 record for one of the finest teams to ever play in the Northwoods League. McKay accepted a position with the Colorado Rockies following the season.
The Northwoods League All-Star game saw over 75 Major League Scouts viewing an exciting 4-3 win by the South Division on an eighth inning home run by Tyler Marincov (North Florida) of the home town Mallards. Marincov was the MVP of the game, while Trevor Podratz (Hawaii) of the Rochester Honkers won an exciting Home Run Derby. The game also featured the sons of Minnesota Twins hitting coach, Joe Vavra, playing for the North Division. Tanner Vavra (Valparaiso) of the Alexandria Beetles and Trey (Madison College) of the Duluth Huskies both ended the season in the top 15 in batting average with Tanner tying for the League lead at .381.
Rounding out the post-season awards were Andy McKay, Manager of the Year, Joe Potulny (La Crosse Loggers) Coach of the Year and Jack Fischer (Wake Forest), a converted infielder for the Wisconsin Woodchucks who won Pitcher of the Year honors.
129 Northwoods League players and alums were chosen by Major League Teams in a Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft that had been reduced by 20% from the previous year to 40 rounds of selections.
2013 saw the Northwoods League celebrate its 20th Anniversary and continue its unprecedented embrace of technology in the Summer Collegiate Baseball world as the League became the first to have its own YouTube channel. This video tool allowed the League to show all game broadcasts (free of charge) to fans across the world along with nightly highlights of each game. The Northwoods League studio also took center stage hosting a pre-game show and a daily live post game show, giving fans full coverage of NWL action. Fans, parents, coaches and scouts could also view video footage of players taking batting practice or throwing a bullpen as a pitcher.
John LaPrise (University of Virginia) hit a whopping .407, the second highest average in League history to take the batting title for the winners of the Summer Collegiate World Series, the Madison Mallards. Co-MVP’s Keith Curcio (Florida Southern University) of Duluth and Marc Flores (University of Hawaii) of Willmar entered the League Record books with outstanding seasons. Curcio, had the second highest hit total in League history (102), while Flores set Northwoods League records for Extra Base Hits (39) and Doubles (26) while adding 13 Home Runs.
Pitcher of the Year, Clay Chapman (Florida Southern University) of Duluth led the Northwoods League with a sparkling ERA of 1.99 while leading the Duluth Huskies to the North Division Championship before losing in the Summer Collegiate World Series to Madison.
The Waterloo Bucks had a fantastic season as they set the League record for regular season wins by a Northwoods League team (51) before losing to the Duluth Huskies (2-0) in the North Division Championship Series. The second year Lakeshore Chinooks won the second half of the very competitive South Division before losing to the eventual Champion, Madison Mallards, (2-1) in the South Division Championship Series.
The 19th Northwoods League All-Star game was played in Eau Claire, WI at historic Carson Park and attracted 80 MLB scouts who watched a very competitive game won by the North Division (7-5) and MVP Shortstop Carter Burgess (Sam Houston St.) of the Rochester Honkers. Adam Martin (Western Carolina) of the St. Cloud Rox put on an impressive show in the Home Run Derby to take the title.
Following the All-Star game a group of MLB scouts convened to choose four (4) teams to compete in the first “Big League Dreams Showcase” in Madison, WI a week after the All-Star game. A double-header pitting 2 North Division Teams versus 2 South Divisions teams gave scouts, fans and an international viewing audience an idea of the depth of talent now present in the Northwoods League on an annual basis.
A documentary crew circulated through the League conducting interviews and footage for a production on the 20 year history of the Northwoods League slated to be released in the summer of 2014.
Finally, the League welcomed back Kenosha, WI and a renovated Simmons Field along with Kalamazoo, MI to the circuit, for play in 2014, making the Northwoods League the largest organized League in the world with 18 teams.
The Northwoods League began the 2014 summer as the largest organized baseball League in North America, and perhaps the world, with 18 member teams. Those 18 teams drew over 1.1 Million fans as the League became the first summer-collegiate baseball league to draw over 1 Million fans in a single season. This total was more than 3 of the 4 Short-Season MLB affiliated leagues in 2014. The South Division of the Northwoods League drew over 230,000 more fans than any other summer-collegiate league with new teams in Kalamazoo, MI (80,761) and Kenosha, WI (72,838) accounting for over 150,000 fans between them.
The Northwoods League’s 20th All-Star game became a highlight of the season, as outgoing MLB Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig was the guest speaker at a gala dinner celebration of the Northwoods League All-Stars held by the Lakeshore Chinooks. In a pitchers’ duel won by the South Division, 3-0, before 2,106 fans the following night, all runs were accounted for by Pete Alonso (University of Florida) of Madison, with a three-run homer in the 4th Inning. He was named the MVP of the game, which foreshadowed his MVP honors for the entire League later in the season. Hometown boy, Brett Siddall (Canisius), of the Lakeshore Chinooks, won the Home-Run Derby in a swing off with a majestic homer over the right field wall. Hall of Famer Robin Yount and long-time Milwaukee Brewer Jim Gantner were in uniform, coaching the respective teams during the game.
The Lakeshore Chinooks were the story of the 2014 summer as they won both halves of the South Division, tying the Northwoods League record for wins (50) during the regular season. In the North Division, the Willmar Stingers took the first-half Championship while the Mankato MoonDogs claimed the second-half title. The Wisconsin Woodchucks, playing in a beautifully renovated Athletic Park, in Wausau, WI, claimed the other playoff spot in the South Division by virtue of having the second best overall record, edging out the inaugural Kenosha Kingfish by one-half game. Lakeshore and Mankato won their respective Divisional series and met in the Summer Collegiate World Series with Lakeshore sweeping the series, 2-0, to take the title and cap off a storybook summer.
In addition to Alonso taking home the MVP award with a .354 batting average with 18 homers, Matt Kent (Texas A&M) of Rochester and Ryan Smoyer (Notre Dame) of Kalamazoo took home Co-Pitcher of the Year honors. Smoyer compiled an 8-1 record with a 2.01 ERA for the inaugural team while Kent had a 2.09 ERA, striking out 69 batters and walking only 10.
In Wisconsin Rapids, WI the Northwoods League Foundation helped construct the first Interactive Handicapped Accessible Venue in all of the sporting world at Witter Field, creating a new and exciting experience for all handicapped fans. Fans in the venue were able to interact, via Wi-Fi, with the home team manager in a designated inning each night.
The Northwoods League also offered via its own YouTube Channel a video subscription service for all 648 regular season games, All-Star game, Showcase and playoffs. A YouTube representative commented, “We loved how you took advantage of our tools in a way we had not seen previously.” It was enormously successful.
The League featured its second annual “Showcase” event in Madison, WI, in which MLB Scouts choose 4 teams of the Top 100 Prospects in the Northwoods League to compete in a doubleheader.
To top off the historic season, the affiliated Cedar Rapids Kernals of the Class A, Midwest League, purchased the Waterloo Bucks.
Early in the 2015 Summer Season the Northwoods League made its presence felt across the amateur baseball world as 194 current players and alumni were chosen in the MLB First-Year Player Draft. The League led all Summer Collegiate leagues in attendance, once again, as over 1.1 Million fans went through the turnstiles despite a rainy June. 16 of 18 teams used a ticketing system developed by and for use by the Northwoods League, giving fans an unparalleled buying experience online and at the box office. The League partnered with Stretch Internet to provide fans with a video subscription service as over 2,200 fans subscribed to experience over 50,000 viewing sessions of Northwoods League games and the 4-camera video production that exists in all 18 parks. The Northwoods League Studio continued to produce pre and post-game shows nightly on YouTube and also produce “Northwoods League Now”, a monthly news magazine aired on Fox Sports North/Midwest during the summer.
The second-year Kenosha Kingfish stole the show on and off the field in 2015 as they took home the Summer Collegiate World Series title while selling out 30 of 36 home dates. Led by former MLB player and manager Duffy Dyer, the Kingfish won both halves of the ultra-competitive South Division before winning two elimination games and sweeping the North Division Champion, St. Cloud Rox, who finished with a league best 49-23 record, in the Summer Collegiate World Series. In a karmic coincidence, Dyer had won the Midwest League Championship as manager of the Kenosha Twins in 1985, exactly thirty years prior.
At the Northwoods League All-Star game held in Wisconsin Rapids, WI, the hometown Rafters put on a great show, before a sold-out crowd of 2006 fans, as the South beat the North, 3-1. Eric Filia (UCLA) of the Kenosha Kingfish was the “Star of Stars” scoring a couple of runs in the victory. In an exciting Home Run Derby won by the North 22-21, Joe DeRoche-Ruffin (University of Connecticut) of the Rochester Honkers, won the individual trophy with eight home runs in one inning (6 outs). Coincidentally, Jeff Campbell (University of North Dakota), a former Rochester Honker, won the championship of the College Home Run Derby earlier in the month. The previous night’s banquet speaker was outgoing Milwaukee Brewers GM, Doug Melvin, who had a great message for the All-Stars.
Mason McCoy, signed as temporary player, won League MVP honors. McCoy, headed to the University of Iowa, set All-Time records for hits in a season (111) and runs scored (79) while leading the League in hitting with a .369 batting average for the La Crosse Loggers. Alex Hermeling (Louisiana-Monroe) of the Battle Creek Bombers won Pitcher of the Year honors with a 3-3 record, striking out 52 batters in 53.2 innings pitched, walking only 12 batters and giving up 33 hits behind his 1.17 ERA. He signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers immediately after the All-Star game.
The 3rd annual “Major League Dreams Showcase” featured a double-header with the top 100 players in the Northwoods League as chosen by MLB Scouts before a crowd of 4,371 in Madison, WI. The Northwoods League continued to evolve as the Alexandria Blue Anchors playing in the smallest market in the League in Alexandria, MN folded operations. The League immediately moved into the vacated Rockford, IL market as the Independent Frontier League ceased operations, allowing the Northwoods League to now have teams in five states and two countries for the 2016 season. Prior to year-end, the League signed a lease to begin play in Bismarck, ND in 2017.
The talent level of the Northwoods League continued to escalate as evidenced by the early summer MLB First-Year Player Draft. Five current players and alumni were chosen in the 1st round, led by sixth overall pick, A.J. Puk, of the University of Florida and the Waterloo Bucks. The Northwoods League’s Bucks also had two additional pitchers taken in the 1st round, meaning their 2014 pitching staff featured three future 1st round draft picks. Fifty-six players and alumni were chosen in the first 10 Rounds as part of 176 players and alumni taken in the 2016 Draft. In August, T.J. Friedl of the University of Nevada-Reno was plucked from the St. Cloud Rox roster, signing the largest undrafted free-agent contract in the history of MLB as he received a reported $738,000 from the Cincinnati Reds. Friedl promptly hit two-home runs in his first two professional at-bats and went on to hit .347 for the Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League.
Continuing its leadership in technology development at the lower levels of baseball, the League hired a full-time IT Executive to its front office to oversee the ongoing development of its in-house ticketing system with integrated CRM, along with its oversight of all team and League websites. Following, the League introduced its own free APP during the season, allowing Northwoods League fans unprecedented access to teams all year long. The League also continued its pioneering of webcasting at the lower levels of baseball, outfitting nine teams with 4-camera, High Definition productions, allowing local news outlets to provide viewers seventy-two games worth of video by grabbing highlights from the cloud and inserting into their own news productions on a nightly basis.
The League drew over 1.1 Million fans for the third consecutive season, far and away the most in Summer Collegiate Baseball. During the season, the League came to terms with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Midwest League Class A Affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, on their purchase of the Fond du Lac, WI territory to become the 20th team in the Northwoods League. They became the second Midwest League member to purchase a Northwoods League team, joining the Cedar Rapids Kernels who own the League’s Waterloo Bucks. The Northwoods League’s 22nd All-Star game was hosted by the Kenosha Kingfish in historic fashion. The preceding evening featured “Home Run Derby at the Harbor”, the Northwoods League’s home run derby, in which Northwoods League players deposited baseballs into Lake Michigan, hitting off a pier into a buoy laden, boat filled harbor in front of over 3,000 fans witnessing this unprecedented event won by Marty Bechina of the home town Kingfish and Michigan State University. The following night, the North Division jumped out to an early 7-0 lead and held on for a 9-5 victory as Mason McCoy (Iowa), the 2015 League MVP from the La Crosse Loggers, and Steve Passatempo (UMass-Lowell) of the Wisconsin Woodchucks shared the “Star of Stars” award as 5,362 fans attended the Home Run Derby and All-Star game.
The story of the season was the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters who won both halves of the South Division, before defeating the Lakeshore Chinooks, Battle Creek Bombers and winning a very competitive Summer Collegiate World Series, 2 games to 0 over North Division Champion, the Eau Claire Express. The first game of the Series featured a two-out, bottom of the ninth, game winning home run by Rob Calabrese (Illinois-Chicago) in one of the most dramatic moments in Northwoods League history.
Alumni continued to make history in MLB as former La Crosse Logger, Max Scherzer, won his second Cy Young Award, while former Wisconsin Woodchuck, Ben Zobrist was the MVP of the World Series won by the Chicago Cubs. Seventy-two former NWL players played Major League Baseball in 2016.
The Northwoods League began play, in 2017, as the largest organized baseball league in North America, if not the World, as it welcomed first year teams Fond du Lac, WI and Bismarck, ND. It then finalized its webcasting upgrade, as all 20 teams now featured a 4-Camera High Definition webcast that was sold as a subscription service to interested viewers. The Major League Baseball First Year Amateur Draft saw 181 players and alumni drafted in June, including 45 in the top 10 Rounds, and two former La Crosse Logger pitchers (Scherzer and Sale) went head-to-head as the starting pitchers in the MLB All-Star Game, creating a World-Wide Northwoods League-awareness that may have been unprecedented.
Twenty-Three Northwoods League alumni made their MLB debut in 2017, highlighted by National League Rookie of the Year runner-up, Paul DeJong. DeJong, a former Wisconsin Woodchuck, tied the Single Season Home Run record, with 20, during the 2014 Northwoods League season. Three years later, as a shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, he hit 25 Home Runs in his MLB rookie season. The Northwoods League had now had 65 of its alumni enter MLB in the last three years. Former La Crosse Logger pitcher Chris Sale was runner-up in the American League Cy Young Award Voting, while former La Crosse Logger pitcher, Max Scherzer, won the National League Cy Young Award, his third Cy Young Award, while throwing his third MLB no-hitter and virtually assuring his place in Cooperstown.
The Northwoods League drew over 1.1 Million fans for the fourth consecutive year, far outdistancing its closest rival in the Summer Collegiate Baseball World. In fact, the Northwoods League drew more fans than 3 of the 4, Short-Season Affiliated Professional Leagues in 2017. On the field, coming off their Northwoods League Championship in 2016, the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, won both halves in the ultra- competitive South Division and finished with an incredible 52-20 record, setting a Northwoods League Record for wins in the regular season. In the North Division, the St. Cloud Rox won the first-half, then defeated the Wilmar Stingers before outlasting second-half winner Mankato, who had beaten Eau Claire, as St. Cloud knocked in a run with two outs in the ninth to tie the game, and then won in extra innings to claim the North Division Championship. In the South Division, the Battle Creek Bombers knocked off the Rockford Rivets, while Wisconsin Rapids defeated Lakeshore in a repeat of the previous season’s first round. Battle Creek, then defeated defending Northwoods League Champion Wisconsin Rapids 6-1, as Tom Stoffel (Virginia Tech), hit two home-runs and pitched two innings in relief to close the game. St. Cloud beat Battle Creek two games to one in an exciting Northwoods League Championship, taking the crown for the North Division for the first-time since Thunder Bay won the title in 2008.
Some remarkable feats took place on the field during 2017, as Owen Miller (Illinois St.) of the Lakeshore Chinooks, unbelievably hit for the cycle twice in three days, on July 3 and July 5. Freshman Zach Zubia (Texas) of the Rochester Honkers, set the Northwoods League record for Home Runs in a season by clubbing 22 during the 2017 summer and capped it off by winning the Northwoods League Home-Run Derby on his way to being named Northwoods League MVP. Hometown Wisconsin Woodchuck, Stevie Mangrum (Virginia Tech) had two hits and two RBI and was named the Northwoods League All-Star Game MVP, as the South defeated the North Division 6-2. The League showcased the second phase of the multi-million dollar renovation made to Athletic Park by Woodchucks’ owner Mark Macdonald. Former MLB alumni continued to enter the coaching ranks in the Northwoods League as former Major League All-Star, Chris Sabo, came aboard to Manage the Green Bay Bullfrogs. First year affiliate, Bismarck, ND won the Northwoods League’s Organization of the Year as the Capitol of North Dakota welcomed Northwoods League baseball, selling out 27 of their 36 home dates.
The Northwoods League introduced its own custom beer (Five Tool Ale) to rave reviews in its Wisconsin teams and Rockford, IL for the 2017 summer. Finally, prior to years end, the Northwoods League welcomed its 21st Affiliate for play in 2019 in the form of the St. Croix River Hounds who will play at the, newly renovated, former site of the St. Croix Downs Race Track in Hudson, WI. Incredibly, coming full circle, part of the ownership group of the new Affiliate is former University of Minnesota star, MLB player and former Northwoods League MVP (1998), Robb Quinlan.