Cloquet’s late rally defines baseball seasonCloquet ninth-grader Brandon Conklin pitched five scoreless innings of relief, and he hit a game-winning, two-run single to lead the Lumberjacks to a 5-4 come-from-behind win over neighboring Esko Tuesday evening on the road.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
Functioning as a reserve during the Lumberjacks state tournament run two years ago, Eric Peterson knows how it feels to be a freshman on the Cloquet varsity baseball team.
A junior and the team’s starting second baseman nowadays, Peterson had a nice vantage point Tuesday as he watched another freshman emerge.
Cloquet ninth-grader Brandon Conklin pitched five scoreless innings of relief, and he hit a game-winning, two-run single to lead the Lumberjacks to a 5-4 come-from-behind win over neighboring Esko Tuesday evening on the road.
Conklin’s lone hit came in the top of the final frame, as Cloquet rallied from an early 4-0 deficit, with three runs in the fifth and two more in the seventh. While noting it is never planned, Peterson said comeback wins have been a common trait for the Lumberjacks this year.
“I think our last four wins have come from behind,” he said. “I think that shows character. Yeah, we want to jump out on teams right away, but we’ll take wins no matter how they come. Ugly or pretty, it’s still a win on the scoreboard.”
Lately, winning is all 15th state-ranked Cloquet (13-5) has been doing. The Lumberjacks have posted victories in five of their last six affairs, and they lost only twice in May. First-year Cloquet Coach Rick Norrgard said despite sluggish starts, his players compete confidently on the diamond.
“We don’t always look spectacular, but good teams find ways to win,” Norrgard said. “We started slow again tonight, but got some big hits late in the game. The kids always believe that they can come back.”
“They know the game is never over until the last out,” added Cloquet Assistant Coach Rick Stowell. “The kids never quit, and never give up.”
That might have been most evident when the Lumberjacks defeated rival Duluth East 5-4 in the final inning last Tuesday at Ed Mettner Field.
According to Stowell, Cloquet used a leadoff double by Adam Hanson, followed by three consecutive bunts by Trent Moe, Conklin and Peterson’s safety squeeze to top the Greyhounds for the first time in recent memory.
“I’ve been here as head coach and an assistant for six years now and that’s the first time we’ve beaten East,” Stowell said. “To beat East is exciting, but the way we did it was remarkable. It was just unbelievable.”
“For me, it’s just another game, but for the kids, to beat Duluth East is a pretty big deal,” Norrgard added. “They are a good team. It was a nice win.”
Living only his second year in Cloquet after moving from Litchfield, Minn., junior first baseman Kaleb Kadelbach – who also plays hockey – has quickly caught on to the joy of knocking off the Greyhounds.
“It’s just fun to beat East in anything,” he said. “Right now, we could be doing better, but I think we are playing pretty good baseball. We don’t give up; we just find ways to battle back. If we play well, I think we can win any game.”
With Cloquet’s recent track history, Esko Coach Ben Haugen firmly agreed.
“There’s no question, Cloquet knows how to win,” he said, “and they expect to win. I think that’s the biggest different between us and them.”
Haugen said his team has improved, but hasn’t defeated a quality opponent all spring. The Eskomos (9-8) were led Tuesday by Andy Hendricks and Ryan Holte’s multiple hits, while Jared Mattson was the losing pitcher of record in yet another difficult loss to swallow for the small Polar League school.
“We’ve lost tough ones to Two Harbors, Deer River, Mora and Aitkin, too,” Haugen said. “Tonight we just raked the field and got out of there
“Hopefully we can learn from this and get this sour taste out of our mouth,” Haugen continued. “We came out strong, but Cloquet is a quality program and you have to hand it to Conklin. He pounded the zone and made our bats go cold.”
Peterson said all underclassmen on the team have been contributing lately.
“The freshmen and sophomores are really stepping up for us,” Peterson said. “We’re staying focused and are constantly told to make the routine plays and have quality at-bats. Our motto is ‘Prepare for game 20’ (the first game of the playoffs).”
Before then, Peterson said there’s still room for improvement.
“We haven’t played a full game yet, but come the playoffs, we’ll have to play all seven innings if we want to get back to the state tournament,” he continued. “The feeling of state is unbelievable. It’s just indescribable. I want to make it back.”
Just like his freshman year.