CLOQUET—Cloquet’s Brandon Conklin admitted he was cold after starting baseball practice outside on the St. Paul’s Lutheran church parking lot Monday evening. Cold weather — with snow late Monday and again on Wednesday and Thursday — has made for a second straight rocky spring. However, the Lumberjacks are anything but.
With varsity veterans like Conklin, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior catcher who doubles as a heavy-tossing right-handed pitcher, Cloquet is again likely to be a top contender on the diamond.
Conklin, in his third season on the varsity, is a part of the Lumberjacks’ mounting threat of throwers, including fellow junior pitchers Nate Weets, Mason Brenner, Hunter Roberts, Gavin Takkunen and senior Ben Merrill. Other players can also chuck for Cloquet if the situation ever arises.
“We have all of the guns that we can ask for,” said Conklin. “With as dominant as our pitching staff is, I don’t see anyone around here that we couldn’t beat.”
Lumberjacks Coach Rick Norrgard was adamant that if his team wants to beat their opposition, it begins on the hill.
“Especially in a spring like this,” said Norrgard, now in his third season. “If you can pitch, you can be competitive with anybody. It all starts on the mound — it’s the key.”
Senior Austin Gotchnik plays outfield, and said Monday he wouldn’t want to face the staff.
“Definitely not,” Gotchnik admitted. “They all have strong arms, off-speed stuff and can throw a lot of strikes.”
Keyed by prominent pitching, Cloquet — returning all but two starters from last year’s 12-8 squad — could be even more dangerous with senior slugger Jeff Sarkela back again, along with classmates Logan Towne, Dylan McIvor and juniors Nate O’Hara and Chase Keye adding to their depth.
“We’re all really good athletes,” said Conklin, noting their team is a confident one. “But we can’t take any game lightly.”
McIvor doesn’t think that will happen, as the middle infielder said a program of 30 total players, now in its fifth week of practice inside a gym, is remaining focused nonetheless..
“We’re taking it serious — everybody has the same goal of progressing to win,” McIvor said. “Everyone is excited.”
That was evident when the Lumberjacks played in a pair of five-inning outdoor scrimmages in Shakopee, Minn. last Saturday. With Ed Mettner Field in Cloquet still spotted with snow, last weekend was their first game since summer.
“Just to get on the grass,” Norrgard said. “If you would have seen us, it was like the first day of summer vacation.”
Esko had a solid summer of youth baseball, and returns 10 varsity-experienced players to this spring’s young team, according to an optimistic eighth-year Coach Ben Haugen.
Centered by lone senior hurler John Carr, the Eskomos — which didn’t play a home game all last year due to athletic facility construction and previous flood damage — have their refurbished field readied, once the snow melts, Haugen said.
“Like everyone, we want to get outside,” said Haugen. “Home, away, Timbuktu ... we just want to play baseball.”
Moose Lake-Willow River junior shortstop/pitcher Brad Fossum said he hopes the Rebels’ baseball field in Moose Lake will be ready to host their first home game next Tuesday.
“We covered the mound, home, and just have little snow left in the infield,” said Fossum, who hits 100 balls in his garage nightly to keep positive. “I’m just trying to stay sane.”
In Barnum, pitcher Zac Carlson — one of seven seniors — said the team has stayed inside most days, as he estimated their field still had five inches of snow on the infield Monday.
“It gets boring in the gym,” said Carlson, before it snowed again Wednesday and Thursday. “We just have to wait it out.”
Fifth-year Carlton Coach Ryan Schmidt, who brought the Bulldogs to the Section 7A final last year, said his team — with only senior Brytton George — is far from taking to the field at Chub Lake.
“A few spots are coming through, but [the field is] mostly just white,” he said.