Cloquet summer softball youth program is thrivingKelly Carlson has played summer softball in Cloquet ever since she could hold the bat, run the bases and put on her leather glove. Mainly an infielder growing up, she even pitched for a brief time.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
Kelly Carlson has played summer softball in Cloquet ever since she could hold the bat, run the bases and put on her leather glove. Mainly an infielder growing up, she even pitched for a brief time.
“I’ve been playing since I was 8,” said Carlson, who won three statewide tournaments and participated in three northern national events over her summers playing competitively. “I like softball. It’s fun.”
Carlson, a four-year Cloquet High School varsity second baseman, recently capped her decorated summer career two weeks ago with the Cloquet-based Minnesota Silver Bullets.
She will play next spring at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, but the 18-year-old will be too old next summer to play the sport that has ruled her life from early June until August.
“I honestly don’t know what I’ll do without softball,” she said. “Probably just sit around, watch TV and not do anything. I’ll miss it.”
Although Carlson is retired from summer ball now, the Cloquet program she always played for is gaining momentum. This past summer thrived with teams at the 14-, 16- and 18-and-Under age levels, while the U-10 sported two squads and U-12 had three teams.
“That’s the most teams we’ve had in probably 10 years,” said Cloquet Youth Baseball/Softball Association President Jeff Woollett. “We had 40 kids at 12s and 35 at 10s. We almost had three teams at 10s. I’d like to see four sometime soon. The numbers are coming.”
Woollett, a longtime youth coach and CYBSA president for more than 15 years, noted the summer was outstanding at the youth level. He said with the addition of new teams, rosters were thinned and kids got more playing time. Woollett explained the league purchased new uniforms and equipment and by summer’s end, all three U-12 teams participated at a state tournament, while the 10s played locally.
“That’s a big thing,” Woollett said about playing in tournaments and state, outside of their normal league play during the week. “Once those kids get that taste of the state tournament, I think they want to go back and do better. It was exciting to have three teams this summer. Fields were being used every night of the week.”
Kenny Joyce, Braun Park manager essentially since its opening in 2000, said on certain evenings the parking lot was filled and all eight fields were full with games of T-Ball, baseball and softball all over.
“Some nights people parked on 14th Street; we haven’t done that before,” Joyce said. “It seemed larger crowds were here on Mondays with softball. But that’s what the park is for. The more the merrier.”
Cloquet High School Head Coach Ron Tondryk agreed.
“The program is headed in the right direction,” he said. “It starts with kids playing at the young levels. All of the coaches are doing a great job creating that interest and giving the girls opportunities.”
In his third year with the Lumberjacks, Tondryk has led Cloquet to back-to-back section finals and a state third-place finish this past June in their second-ever state trip and first since 2002.
“I think we’re making some people believers,” Tondryk said. “Things are getting stronger. Girls are coming to winter clinics in the gym and even 25 girls came to a pitching clinic this summer from ages 8 to 16. It’s exciting to see. We love that.”
Tondryk coached the U-14 Minnesota Dynamite this summer, while assistant Tyler Korby headed the U-16 Minnesota Blast and U-18 Minnesota Silver Bullets. While the Dynamite placed fourth in state, the Blast finished third and Bullets claimed fifth nationally in Illinois. The Blast also finished in the top half nationally in Wisconsin last week, defeating teams from Wisconsin, North Dakota and Minnesota, while also facing a squad from Torrington, Wyo.
All three upper-level teams worked fund-raising efforts as well, and welcomed kids from the surrounding the area. Tondryk said the main goal in the summertime is to simply play more softball.
“The Dynamite played almost 40 games, while the Blast and Bullets played teams from Wyoming to Illinois, Wisconsin and elsewhere,” he said. “The bottom line is we want to give these girls the opportunity to play more games, while continuing to create that interest, improve their skills and have some fun. We wanted the girls to get better and I think our coaches did that. That’s fun to see.”
Carlson noticed the larger numbers in the youth levels, too.
“There seemed to be more kids playing this summer,” she said. “Back when I played, we only had two teams, I think, and they were smaller. It’s nice to see more girls playing these days.”
As for next summer, she can’t play, but Carlson wouldn’t mind sharing some of her valuable experience by assisting, she said.
“I’d like to help out if I can,” Carlson said. “The young girls just have to keep working hard and putting in the time. The summertime is where you get to have fun with your friends and get the extra reps. It will pay off. Who knows, maybe they can win state someday!”