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Prep baseball playoffs heat up

Esko senior Ryan Bourgeault throws a pitch during last Tuesday's baseball game at Cloquet's Mettner Field. Esko will face Eveleth-Gilbert in the Section 7AAA playoffs at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, June 1, at Wade Stadium. Pine Journal File Photo1 / 2
Cloquet junior Cooper Grashorn hits against Esko last Tuesday at Mettner Field. The Lumberjacks will face North Branch in the Section 7AAA playoffs at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 1. Pine Journal File Photo2 / 2

Last Friday evening, Cloquet senior Alec Norrgard walked across the stage, moved his tassel and soon after, tossed his purple cap in the air with the rest of his newly graduated Lumberjack classmates.

Yet Norrgard's high school days aren't over yet.

On a chilly Tuesday afternoon at Ed Mettner Field, the Cloquet baseball team edged Zimmerman 5-3 to begin the Section 7AAA postseason — one that will determine the time remaining in Norrgard and Co.'s prep careers.

"I'm not done with high school until baseball is done," said Norrgard, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound do-it-all player for Lumberjacks coach (and his father) Rick Norrgard. "I want to keep being in high school and wear that jersey as long as possible."

Second-seeded Cloquet (12-8) never trailed Tuesday. Gavin Rasmussen was the winning pitcher, replacing starter Tim Pokornowski for four innings of relief. Rasmussen, one of many skilled sophomores on Norrgard's roster, also produced a 2-run, bases-loaded single to break a 3-all tie in the bottom of the sixth.

Norrgard then gave the ball to his son, who closed out the seventh on the hill for Rasmussen. Seventh-seeded Zimmerman earned a baserunner, but never threatened.

That's often the case against the Lumberjacks' deep staff, which includes more than half a dozen quality pitchers, ranging from sophomores to seniors, hard-throwers and crafty chuckers.

And come this time of year, where double-elimination formats offer games on top of games on top of games, having a wealth of pitchers proves vital.

"The depth of our pitching could be our strength," said Norrgard. "We send guys out there with confidence. The key, however, is to throw strikes."

That's what Alec Norrgard did, pumping his fastball in there more often than not. Also a catcher and first baseman, the younger Norrgard didn't fret when given the ball in the last inning.

"I was just kind of the next guy up today," said Alec afterward. "We have a lot of guys who can throw strikes and all who are good pitchers. We definitely have the staff to go to the state tournament."

If that were the case, it would be Alec's second trip, as he and several others played on Cloquet's 2015 state squad that claimed the Class AA consolation title.

The Lumberjacks welcome sixth-seeded North Branch to Ed Mettner tonight (Thursday, June 1) at 7 p.m. A win would put them in even better position next week within a wild section.

In fact, North Branch upset No. 3 Duluth Denfeld Tuesday, while fourth-seeded Hibbing had a scare with No. 5 Princeton. And in the day's shocker, top-ranked Chisago Lakes needed 15 innings to beat bottom-seeded Hermantown. All eight teams are in the mix, coach Norrgard said.

"It's really wide open," Norrgard noted.

SECTION 7AA

The same can be said in 7AA, as top-seeded Esko (17-4) enters as the favorites on paper. However, with the likes of traditional section winners like Aitkin, Mora and Proctor, along with always-scary Duluth Marshall, the Eskomos can't overlook anyone.

In fact, of Esko's handful of defeats, Duluth Marshall and Mora account for half of them. Proctor is the defending champion and Aitkin in years before then.

"Anybody can win it. There's a lot of good teams," said Esko coach Ben Haugen. "It just comes down to taking care of business and who's going to step up in that big game."

With a roster laden with juniors, seniors and plenty of varsity baseball experience, Esko hopes this is the spring it advances to the state tournament for the first time since 2000.

After receiving an opening round bye, the Eskomos shut out Crosby-Ironton 11-0 Tuesday at Wade Stadium. The Rangers eliminated Moose Lake-Willow River earlier in the day. Esko senior Reid Davidson was the winning pitcher, while his team tallied 10 runs in the first two innings.

Hitting has always been Esko's trademark, but it was Haugen who said he's preaching the "little things" to his team nowadays. Making plays defensively, adjustments offensively and throwing strikes are among them.

"The hay is in the barn, we do what we do, we are who we are," he continued. "But now we just have to go out, be confident and perform."

If that's the case, Haugen may get to watch his boys celebrate their first state trip in 17 years. They face upset-minded and sixth-seeded Eveleth-Gilbert today at Wade Stadium at 2:30 p.m.

"I like our group and am confident we'll be able to breakthrough this year," Haugen said. "I'm rootin' for us."

SECTION 7A

Meanwhile in 7A, top-seeded South Ridge (16-3) is seeking to overcome heartbreak suffered the past three springs, losing in the final each season.

Last year it was to Ely, the year prior Deer River and again Ely in 2014.

To no one's surprise, the Panthers play the No. 2 Timberwolves today (Thursday, June 1) at Superior's NBC Sports Complex at 4:30 p.m. Ely edged South Ridge 7-6 in Ely on May 3.

And on the other side of the bracket sits section favorite Deer River, the co-No. 1 seed Warriors led by their 12 senior veterans.

Deer River needed eight innings to edge Ely 7-6 last Friday in Ely.

Thus, any of these three — or others — can take home the title, and it's the Panthers who are seeking to prove it's their turn.

"We haven't had to search for motivation at any point this season, being section runner-up the last three years," said South Ridge co-coach Tyler Olin, following their 14-3 rout of Silver Bay Tuesday in five innings at Esko. "I feel confident in our guys. And if any team throws strikes and plays defense, you'll be in the game no matter who it's against."

With a quartet of seniors themselves, including a variety of pitchers, the Panthers can play with anyone. They are seeking their school's first state appearance.

Meanwhile, Panther Nick Carlson was a busy kid Tuesday. Prior to their win over Silver Bay, the junior competed in the Section 7A track and field meet in Esko where the junior participated in the triple jump, the long jump and the 400-meter relay.

He ran in the morning and then hurried to baseball, where he plays centerfield and has pitched to a 4-0 record this spring. Add in AAU basketball this spring, and Carlson rarely ever slows down.

Meanwhile, Carlton (13-7) is still unbeaten in 7A and faces Deer River today (Thursday, June 1) at 4:30 p.m. in Cohasset. A loss would shoot them to the losers' bracket — the same for South Ridge — as both seek to advance to next week. Wrenshall, meanwhile, was eliminated by Carlton 7-3 Tuesday in Proctor.

In Section 5A, both Barnum and McGregor-Cromwell-Wright were ousted last week: the Bombers 12-3 at Omania and Mercuries 2-0 at Isle.

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