Cloquet VFW baseball comes close to state trip, but ...
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
Bruce Kahara wasn’t certain, but word has it the Cloquet VFW baseball team advanced to the state tournament almost 20 summers ago.
“That’s what I’ve been told,” said the VFW head coach, “– that they went in 1993.”
Cloquet now has a chance to add another chapter to their baseball history books.
In unarguably their biggest game yet, Cloquet clashed with Ely for the district championship at Don Fitchner Memorial Field in Hermantown Wednesday as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press.
Both clubs split with each other earlier in the double-elimination tournament as Cloquet won 3-1 Monday, while Ely fought back to beat Hermantown and then Cloquet 7-5 Tuesday night. Wednesday’s winner will head to Mankato, Minn., for next week’s VFW state tournament.
“That would be big,” said Cloquet sophomore Brandon Conklin. “We have been pushing for [state] all year. We’re a family; there’s never a dull moment with us. We just have to have our heads in the game.”
That’s what plagued Cloquet Tuesday night. Sitting unbeaten with a 5-1 lead in the fourth inning, Ely rallied to score four runs with two outs, then later added two more in the bottom of the sixth. Cloquet went scoreless in the seventh and shook hands knowing things slipped.
Coach Kahara said that’s nothing new.
“We just don’t have that killer instinct,” Kahara said. “Sometimes, we seem to want to let our opponents get back into the game. We just don’t have the ability the close out games when we should.”
“There was some moping around the dugout after we lost tonight,” said the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Conklin who missed around half of the summer with a hip injury. “I just reminded the guys to keep their heads up; tomorrow is a new day. [Ely] is definitely a team that we can beat.”
Cloquet has beaten a lot of teams this summer. Entering Wednesday’s title tilt, they had won 27 of 34 VFW contests in all, while advancing through sub-districts and adding to district victories over International Falls and Grand Rapids, along with Ely earlier.
“Most of the kids on the team played Legion ball, too,” Kahara said.
With that busy summer schedule – and with most of his players having participated in youth state championships in the past – Kahara believed his team had the upper hand entering Wednesday. It’s not often they lose twice, he noted.
“I told the boys we hadn’t been beaten twice in a row for a while,” Kahara said. “They’ve played a lot of baseball and been a part of some big games before. If they are not ready now, they’ll never be ready.”
Assistant coach Connor Stowell noted Nate Weets was Tuesday’s losing pitcher, despite a strong effort in just his second loss this summer. Weets, Nate O’Hara, Jeff Sarkela and Derek Bloom all put the ball in play with two strikes in the fourth; the only inning Cloquet scored.
“We were good with two strikes, but we only hit the ball for one inning. [Ely] kept fighting; they’re a good team. But if we come out, hit the ball and make the plays that we should make, we’ll be on our way to Mankato,” Stowell said confidently.
Both Stowell and Kahara said sophomore Gavin Takkunen will start Wednesday’s title game, while the right-hander Conklin, who pitched a 3-1 complete game win past Ely on Monday, will be ready in relief.
“It’s winner-take-all now,” Conklin said. “I think we can take it.”
UPDATE: Cloquet did not win its Wednesday night game against Ely.