Playing baseball in Minnesota can be tough. By August most summer leagues have wrapped up, and finding good winter facilities can mean traveling across the metro or farther. That was certainly the case in the Woodbury area until Great Lakes Baseball Academy opened.
Co-owners Brian Bambenek and Eric Lovdahl set out to create a place where baseball players in the east metro could train year-round. They created the Great Lakes Lumberjacks in 2015, with teams for players ages 12 to 18 competing in games in the fall. Now they’ve opened a new local facility on Commerce Drive, featuring space for a variety of baseball drills. There are eight batting cages, which can be raised to create space for players to have infield practice on the turf; several are long enough that pitchers can throw from a regulation distance mound and get in a full pitching session. “We’ve had so many great parents that walk through and say, ‘If only I had this growing up,’” Bambenek says.
Bambenek, a four-year outfield starter and former assistant coach at Augsburg College, has worked for the Minnesota Twins Youth Training Camp, started Bambenek Hitting Academy and coached with the Cotuit Kettleers in the prestigious Cape Cod League. A Roseville native, Lovdahl played baseball at UW-River Falls and was later signed by the Minneapolis Millers, where he posted a league-leading ERA in Class A ball. He is the current batting practice pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, is the director of their Youth Training Camps and also owns the Lovdahl Pitching Academy.
The goal of Great Lakes Baseball Academy is to provide a positive environment that is conducive to the athletes’ mental, physical and social growth. “We are committed to providing opportunities and exposure for our players by competing at a high level, yet maintaining the ‘team first, athlete second’ doctrine,” Bambenek says.
In their first fall season, Great Lakes put together 12 teams—two from each age group. The teams played in local tournaments and also traveled to St. Louis, Des Moines and Phoenix. For the winter season, Great Lakes had five teams. Those teams mostly did indoor practices, and players got unlimited use of the facility to come in and work on a variety of drills on their own or with coaches. The teams also traveled to two out-of-state tournaments.
Kyle Koken is a junior at East Ridge who uses Great Lakes during the offseason. He began specializing in baseball when he was in ninth grade, and has been looking for a place to train in the offseason. He had tried other facilities around the Twin Cities but they weren’t a good fit. Great Lakes offered exactly what he wanted. “They work with everyone individually and don’t just focus on the group,” Koken says. “They also run us through great drills.”
Koken joined Great Lakes because of its connection to the community. His dad, Joe Koken, had coached Kyle when he was younger, but once Kyle’s skills became more advanced, Joe realized Kyle needed more specialized training.
Joe says sending Kyle to a facility with the best possible training, in Woodbury, was an added bonus. “Now Kyle can drive a mile, hit balls, and get quality coaching,” Koken says. For a baseball player from Minnesota, that’s a pretty hard find.