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Published On: January 9th, 2017

gillesmezzengaEau Claire, Wis. – With the Northwoods League season 141 short days away, the Eau Claire Express today announced its first two commitments to the 2017 roster. Returning for a second Northwoods League season is University of Minnesota outfielder Ben Mezzenga. Joining him is Chippewa Falls native and Central Michigan University outfielder Zach Gilles. The team will continue to announce player signings weekly until the beginning of the Northwoods League season.

Mezzenga led the Express with a .328 batting average in his first season with the team. The speedy outfielder was named to the Northwoods League All-Star team mid-season and also ranked second on the Express with 22 stolen bases in only 34 games. Express Field Manager Dale Varsho loves the way Mezzenga plays the game and looks forward to having him at the top of the lineup again this year.

“One of the highlights for our coaching staff last year was seeing the way he approaches the game,” Express Field Manager Dale Varsho stated. “The speed and intensity he brings each and every night sets a great example for his teammates and is something the fans of the Chippewa Valley will enjoy. I’d like to thank the Gophers for their trust in sending him back to Eau Claire this summer.”

Even though Ben enters only his second year with the Gophers, he is someone the coaching staff has had their eye on for a long time.

"Ben was very highly recruited because of his game-changing speed, hitting ability and overall athleticism,” stated Assistant Head Coach Rob Fornasiere. “He is also a multi-sport athlete with great energy and competitiveness. We have seen Ben play for several years and targeted him as the top outfielder in the 2015 graduating class in Minnesota."

After his summer in the Northwoods League, the University of Minnesota coaching staff has seen a significant development in Mezzenga’s skills and look forward to his continued development in the league.

“We are excited to send Ben back to Eau Claire for the summer of 2017,” said Assistant Coach Pat Casey. “Ben is a special player, and even more so, a special kid.  He had a major impact for the Express in 2016 and we hope for more of the same this coming season.  Ben has game-changing speed, both in the box and in the outfield, and his skill set as a hitter has greatly improved after his first full season against Northwoods League competition.  His poise, game awareness and leadership qualities have been impressive ever since he has stepped foot on campus and we are excited to see the jumps he takes as a sophomore in his second season in the Big Ten Conference.  We look for a big year from Ben, his experience and exposure from playing in Eau Claire has developed him substantially, both as a player and as a person”  

The Express will again have local talent on the team with the addition of Chippewa Falls McDonnell standout Zach Gilles. The freshman is set to play for the Central Michigan Chippewas this spring. Gilles will bring more speed to the outfield and the base paths at Carson Park, evidenced by stealing 31 bases during his senior season in high school without being caught once. He is rated as the No. 13 prospect in Wisconsin by Prep Baseball Report and as the No. 31 prospect in the state by Perfect Game. Varsho sees Gilles pairing well with Mezzenga as their playing styles are similar.

“Zach is a lot like Ben when it comes to game-changing speed and wreaking havoc on the basepaths,” Varsho said. “Most of the time I wouldn’t have much to say about a freshman that is coming to our program, but in this case I know the aspects of his game that our fans will enjoy from watching his high school career with the Macs. He’s a great teammate and comes to the ballpark with an excellent attitude every day. I’m looking forward to having his family and friends get the opportunity to watch him compete in this league.”

The Express begin season number 13 in the Northwoods League on May 30 as they travel to Bismark, N.D. for the inaugural series for the Bismark Larks. They continue to Willmar to take on the Stingers for a two-game set before opening their home schedule at Carson Park on Saturday, June 3 versus the Mankato MoonDogs. First pitch of the home opener will be at 7:05 p.m. and the game will be followed by a fireworks show. Purchase your 5-Game Packs, including a reserved seat and unlimited food and beverage, online by clicking here or by contacting the Express office at 715-839-7788 or 102 E. Grand Ave. in downtown Eau Claire. Single-game tickets go on sale May 1.

The Eau Claire Express are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. The 23-year-old summer collegiate league is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 20 teams, drawing significantly more fans, in a friendly ballpark experience, than any league of its kind. A valuable training ground for coaches, umpires and front office staff, 160 former Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including two-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (WAS),two-time World Series Champion Ben Zobrist (CHC) and MLB All-Stars Chris Sale (BOS), Jordan Zimmermann (DET), Curtis Granderson (NYM) and Lucas Duda (NYM).  All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League portal. For more information, visit or download the new Northwoods League Mobile App on the Apple App Store or on Google Play and set the Express as your favorite team.