ALBURNETT — Ryan Stensland originally thought he would miss a milestone moment.
He is in his fourth season as Alburnett head coach, while his twin sons, Isaac and Lincoln, are eighth graders in the Lisbon baseball program. They didn’t expect to be together for the boys’ high school baseball debuts about a month ago.
As luck would have it, Stensland was there. He just happened to be in the opposing dugout when the younger duo took the field for the junior varsity game.
“I told my Alburnett guys that I probably know how Darth Vader felt when he faced Luke Skywalker,” Stensland said with a laugh. “It was a weird situation. We didn’t try to make a big deal out of it. I’m proud of them for competing.”
The game against Lisbon was just the start of a challenging first week for the Class 1A seventh-ranked Pirates. Alburnett opens with competition on each of the season’s first four days, including two consecutive days against teams ranked in the Class 1A preseason coaches poll.
The opening night was special for Stensland, who lives on a farm outside Lisbon and previously coached the Lions to 250 victories and three state tournaments. He returned to the diamond with the Pirates, who field a strong nucleus from last year’s state runner-up team.
Of course, getting to watch his sons play was an added bonus he didn’t expect until the baseball season was delayed and jeopardized by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Family attended the game to watch both teams with Isaac getting the start on the mound. Stensland joked that he was just relieved his wife, Abbe, a Lisbon school board member, chose to sit on his side.
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“That was an interesting first night,” Stensland said. “It just worked out they played us and I got to watch them play.
”It was cool for my family to be there and get to watch all of us. It was a 2-for-1 deal that night.”
The family has a competitive streak. Stensland said the family is constantly trying to out-do each other, noting his younger daughters, Ella and A.J., might be the biggest competitors in the group.
They shared some good-natured ribbing. Stensland noted that he told the boys to watch for “high and tight” pitches. He balanced being Pirates coach with being a Lions dad during the contest.
“I told them, at the end of the day, they’re still my boys and I’m proud of them no matter what,” Stensland said. “They were pretty excited about it.”
This was supposed to be a midseason gauntlet to ramp up competition and prepare for the postseason. Not the jump-in-head-first slate it has turned out to be with the late start and abbreviated season.
But, Alburnett started with success, edging the Lions, 2-1, in the varsity contest at home. They traveled to No. 3 Mason City Newman on Tuesday night, falling 9-3 in a rematch of last year’s state title game.
Things didn’t get easier Wednesday with a home game against No. 6 Don Bosco. The stretch closes with a Tri-Rivers Conference doubleheader Thursday at Maquoketa Valley.
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“This is a busy week for us,” Stensland said. “Friday, we’re probably all going to take a big sigh of relief.”
The Pirates won 34 games last season and made their first state baseball finals appearance. They have plenty of talent, including all-staters Reed Stallman, Hunter Caves and Austin Huber. Caden Evans, Shane Neighbor, Grant Soukup and Andrew Ossman are among some of the other leaders looking for another strong showing.
Stensland said many have been starting since their freshman or eighth-grade season.
“They have a lot of experience,” Stensland said. “I think they’re learning now that they have a pretty wide target on their backs. They realized that every night that teams are going to bring their best effort to try to beat us. We have to rise to that level and hopefully they will keep working to get better every day.
“They’re a great group of guys. I think their hungry for the postseason.”
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