Two years ago, D.J. Utley and Ben Rettenmeier played against each other at the junior college level, Utley with Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) and Rettenmeier at Kirkwood.
Now the two have joined forces at Wartburg, Rettenmeier as the ace of the pitching staff and Utley as the clean-up-hitting first-baseman or designated hitter.
“We still talk about games we played against each other at junior college,” Rettenmeier said.
How the two ended up at Wartburg is a story in itself. Rettenmeier walked on at Kirkwood after receiving little attention as a pitcher in high school.
“I didn’t actually think I would be here. Out of high school, I really didn’t have a lot of offers to play baseball anywhere,” Rettenmeier said. “My brother had played at Kirkwood and they said they’d give me a shot so I walked on at Kirkwood and one thing led to another and here I am today.”
Although a starter now, Rettenmeier primarily was a bull-pen guy at Kirkwood.
Utley originally attended Iowa State and didn’t even play baseball his first semester of college.
He transferred to DMACC in the spring of 2012 because he missed playing baseball, but had only 31 at-bats over two seasons at DMACC.
Even though the two weren’t everyday players, they gained experience and improved their game.
“The junior college component in the state of Iowa is strong, I mean we’re talking about winning national championship type programs,” Wartburg head coach Joel Holst said.
“So those kids have typically seen a higher level of baseball and when they come in, they’re normally able to dominate to a certain extent in the Iowa Conference.”
They learned what it takes to win and have carried their success from the JUCO level to Division III.
“Being at DMACC you just get used to winning baseball games and here at Wartburg it’s the same way,” Utley said. “It’s a good team. I just try to make an impact.”
The transition process has been relatively easy for the two. Rettenmeier transferred two years ago to Wartburg and also moved from the bull-pen to a full-time starter.
In his first full year with the team, the junior was 9-1 with a 3.25 ERA while leading the team in appearances, innings pitched and strikeouts. He was also named to the D3baseball.com All-Region team.
“We’re not going to recruit a junior college kid that can’t play here right away as a junior,” Holst said.
“Rettenmeier would be a good example of a kid that came in and made the difference in terms of our pitching staff last year and made it a championship type pitching staff.”
This year, Rettenmeier is the Knights No. 1 pitcher and is 3-0 with a 1.32 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 34 innings pitched.
After losing All-Region first baseman Drew Yoder last year, the team had a hole to fill at the position.
So far, Utley has stepped in and lived up to the hype of being one of the best hitters in program history, said Holst. Utley boasts a .351 average, as four home runs and leads the team in total bases (36) while playing first base and also starting as the designated hitter in some games.
“He’s a scary guy to face in our lineup,” Holst said. “There’s just that extra polish and that confidence in his ability that has allowed him to be successful.”
The former rivals are now good teammates and understand how important one another will be to their team’s success this year.
“That big pop in the middle of the lineup is definitely something teams are going to be afraid of,” Rettenmeier said of Utley.
“He’s 3-0 right now, shutting other teams down and that’s what we need from our pitchers, someone that can come in and win a ballgame,” Utley said. “We don’t have any doubt that he’s going to put us in a situation to win any ballgame that he pitches in.”
If the two continue to put up the type of numbers they’ve had so far this season, chances are they won’t be left off many awards lists. However, they would much rather have the attention turned toward the what the team can accomplish in 2014.
“At Wartburg, every year we definitely expect a conference tournament championship, conference regular season championship and we definitely want to make it back to regionals this year,” Rettenmeier said. “I’d love to see a college world series this year for the first time.”