PERHAM -- During his junior season, Gabe Pankonin was renowned for his defensive play. A year later, his bat has come alive and made Pankonin one of, if not the most complete baseball player in the area.
Pankonin will be joining a program on the rise at St. Cloud Technical and Community College in the coming school year.
The Cyclones made a run to the College World Series last season and the program has put together solid years under the tutelage of new Head Coach Jason Fischer.
Fischer is a graduate of Fergus Falls High School and was an assistant coach and interim head coach at St. Cloud State University before taking over the Cyclones.
Fischer was named the 2012 MCAC and NJCAA Region XIII Coach of the year after completing his first season as head coach of the Cyclones.
"We lost both of our catchers last year and have three coming in this season," Fischer said. "The competition is wide open. Whoever works the hardest has the best shot."
Much of Pankonin's success from his senior season to this summer has been due to a lot of hard work done to improve his game.
Pankonin beefed up adding 15 pounds of muscle with the help of local weightlifting trainer Thomas Teodter.
"He goes to my church and we were talking about lifting weights last winter," Pankonin said.
The duo combined on workouts three times a week for nearly three hours per day.
"A lot of heavy lifting," said Pankonin. "The first month sucked, because I was sore every day. Weight lifting changed everything."
Those workouts paid off, as Pankonin was a different hitter at the plate this year.
Pankonin has led off multiple games with a leadoff home run, twice on the first pitch.
With his improved abilities has come a huge rise in confidence.
"Every time, my mentality is first pitch," he said.
Pankonin showcased this mentality in a recent streak in the District 9 Legion tournament pulling off a stretch of a perfect 8-8 at the plate with two homers, four doubles and two singles.
Combined with his mastery of defense at the catcher position, Pankonin is a force on every play in a baseball game.
His defense was noteworthy two seasons ago when base runners were never safe no matter what base they were occupying.
It translated into a much different style of play from opposing teams his senior year. There were less than 10 stolen base attempts on Pankonin during the whole of the high school baseball season.
"Nobody really tried stealing on me this year."
Pankonin should provide stiff competition for the other two catchers he'll compete against for the starting job at SCTCC.
"I always new he was solid defensively," Coach Fischer said. "Now the offense seems to be where it should be. He's got a good shot."
Recent success for the Cyclones has made St. Cloud a hot commodity for recruits.
"It makes life a lot easier," said Fischer. "Before you'd call a kid up and they would say from where? They're definitely more interested."
A ranking as high as No. 2 in the nation and a record of 43-9, en route to a fifth place finish at the College World Series has been drawing plenty of attention to the Cyclones.
Pankonin has a head start on his education, as well. He earned 25 college credits while still in high school which has him jump started on an Associates degree with plans to continue with a Pre-Med degree.
Baseball and education are on a parallel course, but Pankonin knows which one holds more importance in the long run. Although, any future professional prospects in baseball are certainly worthy of consideration.
"Education is more important," said Pankonin. "But, if I got drafted I'd go for it."
Pankonin considered a move closer to home in Fergus Falls but advice from his parents and the fact the family thought St. Cloud was a better fit pushed to the Cyclones roster.
Pankonin's parents Vince and Bridgit are fixtures at games and took on big roles in finding the proper school for Gabe to continue his education and baseball career.
"My mom did a lot of work," Pankonin said. "There were a lot of emails that my mom responded to and they both helped a lot."
Pankonin looked at bigger schools, like St. Cloud State and North Dakota State, but both schools had junior college transfers.
"My mom and I did a lot of research on Big Ten schools and others and I'd say 60-75 percent of their rosters were junior college transfers."
A transfer to a bigger school seems inevitable for Pankonin's future, but in the mean time, he is concentrating on what is to come.
"I'm just going to play college baseball."