Cloquet, Esko VFW eager for playoffsJust a few summers ago, Gavin Takkunen knew the feeling of losing a youth state championship baseball game. Today, the 16-year-old centerfielder only hopes he can embrace how it feels to win one.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Just a few summers ago, Gavin Takkunen knew the feeling of losing a youth state championship baseball game. Today, the 16-year-old centerfielder only hopes he can embrace how it feels to win one.
Takkunen is the leadoff man for a potent Cloquet VFW baseball squad that has won 21 of their 26 games this summer, including their past 11 straight and five doubleheaders. Expectations are high for Cloquet as they enter next week’s sub-district and district playoffs, seeking their first-ever state berth.
“There is no doubt that we all think we can go to state, but we just have to play how we know we can and go destroy,” said the 5-foot-10 Takkunen, who also is a right-handed pitcher. “We played on competitive teams when we were younger. We’re playing well right now and sitting pretty.”
According to last year’s head coach and this year’s assistant, Connor Stowell, in Cloquet’s 11-game winning streak, they have outscored their opponents 95-43. Their team batting average sits at a staggering .346, while 11 players have posted victories on the mound this summer.
Numbers like that have Coach Bruce Kahara confident.
“It’s a good bunch of kids that get along, play hard and understand what to do with the baseball,” said Kahara, in his first year as head coach after assisting Stowell last year. “But it’s going to be a challenge.”
Remaining realistic even after winning the Hermantown tournament, placing in the top half at Grand Rapids and only falling in two of their 18 league games thus far, Kahara said his Cloquet team can improve.
“We are still trying to instill that killer instinct in them,” said Kahara, whose grandson, Jeff Sarkela, plays on the team. “If they stay away from the big inning, they’re fine, but some days they don’t crush them when they should. Every now and then we have a lapse.”
Takkunen made it clear he and his team realize they can be defeated.
“We can be beat if we don’t play the way we know we can,” he said. “We have been winning everything lately and we just have to keep it up.”
Takkunen is one of a handful of players who logged varsity innings last spring and American Legion games this summer. He and fellow freshmen Nate Weets, Mason Brenner and Brandon Conklin all contribute to the pitching staff.
Stowell also recognized sophomore slinger Ben Merrill, who hasn’t lost, while relief hurler Drew Marciniak leads the team in wins and Victor Foxx is a sturdy veteran helping achieve the team earned-run average of 3.42 this summer.
Offensively, Conklin has a .500 average in seven games since his return from a broken hip that sidelined him five weeks. Sophomores Sarkela and Travis Bartlett have heavy swings, too, while Merrill sports a strong average, Nate O’Hara leads in doubles and Takkunen in runs scored.
“Overall, I think we are as tough as any team, but we can’t overlook sub-districts,” Stowell said about next week’s playoffs. “Similar to last year, we average almost 10 runs per game, but our pitching is stronger and deeper now. We are still going to need to come to play if we want to make a deep run.”
“We are hopeful that we can be the first team to go to state from Cloquet,” Kahara added, “but there are a couple of teams that are tough out there.”
Esko challenged the experienced Lumberjacks in a pair of one-run, final-inning losses at Ed Metter Field in Cloquet last Friday.
First-year Esko VFW Coach Jake Olson said they mercy-ruled Proctor twice Tuesday at their backup field at home. He said Esko is under .500 in 17 games.
“Last week, we played Cloquet tough,” Olson said confidently. “And after10-running Proctor, I think we’re playing a lot better right now.”
Olson noted third baseman Aaron Olson leads the team in hitting at .435, while they’ve had to deal with the absence of starting catcher Nick Emanuel, due to a broken collarbone he suffered on a foul ball collision last week.
“We have to continue playing defense and hitting the ball because that’s what it’s going to take,” Olson said of his team, which is averaging 12 hits per game entering the playoffs. “I think we can compete with pretty much anybody.”
That’s just how Takkunen feels in Cloquet.