A varied combination of certain traits tends to be apparent in most standout athletes: a hard work ethic, well-refined skills, tremendous athleticism, self-confidence and a love for the game. Unfortunately, as sports fans well know, a player can be gifted with all of the above and still not reach his/her potential due to an unforeseen factor - injuries.
Alex Fenske seemed to be on his way to becoming an impact player for the Marshall baseball team during his junior year in 2011. In his first junior varsity start of the season he tossed a no-hitter against Dassel-Cokato. A couple of days later he earned his first varsity start against Lac qui Parle Valley in Marshall's sixth game of the year. The 6-foot-4 right-hander struck out eight batters and tossed a complete-game shutout in the Tigers' 1-0 win.
Those were the only two game Fenske pitched in 2011.
Following his shining performance against LQPV, he suffered from elbow problems that persisted through the rest of the season and was unable to find his way back on the hill.
"It started with his elbow and then was his shoulder, just one thing after another," Marshall head coach Steve Fleck said. "You felt bad for him because he could just never get healthy."
Throwing is a motion Fenske has excelled at during his high school career, and after recovering from his arm issues from last spring, he went on to put forth an outstanding senior season as quarterback for Marshall's football team that finished the year 9-1.
Football is Fenske's future. He will play for Division III powerhouse St. Thomas next fall. But he still wanted to show what he could do on the baseball field, so he prepared his body try to ensure he could make it all the way through his senior season.
"This winter I was really working on strengthening the tendons and muscles around my elbow to make sure I didn't have problems," Fenske said, "and it paid off in the end."
It did, indeed.
Fenske led the Tigers' pitching staff with a 2.43 ERA and posted a 4-1 record, striking out 31 batters in 31 1/3 innings. When he wasn't pitching, he made a flawless transition moving from his familiar position of first base to manning center field.
At the plate, Fenske could best be described as a clutch hitter. Batting left-handed from the No. 5 spot in the order, Fenske led the team with 22 RBIs and had a .402 batting average for the 14-6 Tigers.
What allows a player to go from having spotty varsity experience one year to becoming the Independent Player of the Year the next?
"You have to expect a lot to achieve a lot, so I just kept that in mind," Fenske said. "I had a lot of confidence, and it paid off."
Fenske showed he was full of confidence this year while stepping up seemingly whenever his team needed him to.
Entering the season, Fleck was concerned with how Marshall would fill some big gaps in its pitching staff. He knew seniors Riley Carpenter and Mason Schnaible would be two big contributors, but said a lot depended on how Fenske would handle a starter's workload.
As it turned out, there was little to be concerned about. When he wasn't plowing through a batting order, Fenske showed an ability to bear down and battle his way out of jams unscathed. A lot of Fenske's success on the mound, Fleck said, was due to his ability to throw two pitches for strikes whenever he wanted.
"We knew we were going to have a solid pitcher, but his velocity surprised me a bit," Fleck said. "I knew he'd throw hard, but he threw real hard.
"The other thing I was most proud of and most impressed with was we worked on his curveball and how sharp of a break his curveball had, and the confidence he had to lead people off with it."
One of Fenske's most impressive performances came late in the regular season against eventual Southwest Conference champion Worthington. The Tigers had gotten off to a slow start to their conference schedule and needed a win to keep their hopes at a third straight SWC title alive. Fenske went on to shut down the Trojans' potent lineup, striking out 10 batters and giving up just three hits in a 6-1 Marshall win.
Like the Tigers' conference title aspirations, the team's hopes of a Section 3AA championship fell short as well. But even in losses, Fenske came up with some huge hits.
He knocked in the only run of the game in Marshall's 2-1 loss to New Ulm in the final four of the section playoffs. And when Marshall was losing 4-3 against Fairmont in an elimination game with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Fenske hit a shot up the middle to drive in the tying run that forced extra innings, where Marshall eventually lost 5-4.
"It seemed like he was always there in the big games or the big moments and playing his best," Fleck said. "I think that comes from a variety of things.
"Alex, whether it was baseball or this fall during the football season where he'd have those big 3rd-and-5s and needed to make the throw to get the first down, or being in the two-minute drill late in a game and you're running the show, he's been in those moments before. He's been in those competitive experiences and he brought that to the baseball field."
Added Fenske, "It's basically all about confidence. You have to have faith in yourself that you're going to come up big in those moments. I knew I could do it."
Fenske's final game representing the Tigers came in the Lions All-Star series last week. He and Schnaible were the first Marshall representatives at the event since Nate Baumann in 2007.
Focusing on his football training this summer, Fenske is unsure what role baseball, another sport he says he loves, will have in his future. If his first full varsity season also turns out to be his last time competitively playing the game, Fenske said he thoroughly enjoyed sharing it with a tight-knit group of fellow seniors.
"We're all really close with each other," Fenske said. "That just makes the game even more fun than it already is."