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Cloquet baseball team wins District championship, heads to State

Cloquet Little League Intermediate coach John Benson talks to the team after winning the District 3 championship over Hermantown at Lake Park. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com1 / 4
Shortstop Timmy Pokornowski makes a running catch in the infield during the Intermediate Little League championship game vs. Hermantown at Lake Park. Intermediate teams play with 50 foot pitching and 70 foot base paths. Dave Harwig/ news@pinejournal.com2 / 4
Eli Benson hits for the Cloquet Little League's Intermediate team in the District 3 championship game vs. Hermantown at Lake Park. Dave Harwig/ news@pinejournal.com3 / 4
Cloquet Little League Intermediate District 3 Championship team photo. Dave Harwig/ news@pinejournal.com4 / 4

DULUTH—As the fastest kid on the Cloquet intermediate youth baseball team, it was only fitting that Alex Leuzzo was the first to arrive at his team’s title banner.

Cloquet continued its banner-winning summer, as Leuzzo knocked in teammate Otto Cockburn for the winning run in a 14-4 victory over Hermantown en route to claiming the District 3 intermediate baseball championship last Wednesday at Lake Park Little League in Duluth.

After receiving their blue medals, all 13 of Cloquet’s players screamed in celebration as they sprinted to left field for their white banner, where Leuzzo was first to the fence.

“I wanted to be the first one there,” admitted Leuzzo, a speedy 13-year-old centerfielder. “I was just really excited.”

Exciting is how the group of all 12- and 13-year-olds play the game. Sporting speed throughout their lineup, Cloquet stole a baker’s dozen of bases against Hermantown last week in game that lasted only five innings.

The 17-3 team can hit the ball for power, as well, while defensively the squad is sure and their pitching good as any.

Speaking of pitching, eighth-grader Jon Baker is masterful. Beginning baseball at the age of 3 with his identical twin brother and catcher, Nick, and their father and assistant coach, Bruce, Jon throws a slider, knuckleball and has a fastball that can overpower most any young teenager.

“I don’t know how hard he throws,” admitted Coach John Benson, “but I’ve been doing this for a while and he throws as hard as any 13-year-old that I have ever seen.”

Nick enjoys catching for all the pitchers, but especially for Jon, who has thrown hard enough to hurt Nick’s hand and wrist.

“Only a few times,” Nick said with a laugh.

Many of the players are close friends, so there’s a lot of laughter in the dugout.

Noah Niemi, the team’s heavy-hitting third baseman, is enjoying his summer greatly.

“It’s been one of the best summers ever,” said Niemi, who has hit two over-the-fence home runs this year.

With four straight district wins over Lake Park, Esko, Duluth Western and Hermantown, Cloquet now plays in the state tournament this weekend in Plymouth, Minn.

Benson said his group won the state tournament as a part of the Minnesota Baseball Tournament League two summers ago when they were

11-year-olds. Now a member of Little League, if Cloquet wins the state tournament this weekend, they would advance to Central Regionals in Kalamazoo, Mich. over July 19-26, like the Esko Nitro did last year.

“I think they’ve got a chance,” said Benson about his team, which plays with 70-foot bases and a 50-foot pitching distance. “They’re a great group of kids. They’ve got a shot.”

Benson’s son, Eli, is also on the team as a first baseman. A multi-sport athlete like many of his friends, Eli said they are a confident group with high expectations.

Along with the Baker twins, Leuzzo, Benson, Niemi and Otto Cockburn, the team includes: brothers Tim and Markus Pokornowski, Cole Ketola, Caleb Essler, Zakery Bourdage, Jacob Eskola and Josh Anderson. Coach Benson said all 13 players faced Cloquet senior pitchers Brandon Conklin and Mason Brenner this summer to prepare for their current run.