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Conklin hopes for ‘Legion’ of Merit

The Cloquet American Legion baseball team begins District tournament play at Duluth East High School on Thursday morning at 10 a.m. Players include (back row, left to right): Ben Merrill, Chase Keye, Gabe Sorenson, Mason Brenner, Brandon Conklin, Dylan Johnson and (front row, from left) Austin Gotchnik, Chanler Dilday, Zach O'Hara, Gavin Takkunen, Logan Towne, Hunter Roberts, Nate Weets. Dave Harwig/

This summer, the Cloquet American Legion baseball team has been like Mother Goose’s “Little Girl with the Curl.”

When they’ve been good, they’ve been very, very good, but when they’ve been bad, according to Coach Dennis Conklin, they’ve been horrid.

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Still, Cloquet (8-12) earned the fourth seed in the upcoming District playoffs by virtue of a 5-2 record in seeding games against district opponents.

“The games that mattered, we went 5-2,” Conklin said. “The seeding games. We beat the Class AA teams we played and lost to the AAA teams. We are what we are, and that’s how it is.”

Conklin doesn’t spare the rod when talking about his players and says his team’s search for consistency this summer has been maddening and elusive in equal measure.

“Last week we played three games,” he said. “Twice we lost 5-1 and out-hit our opponents both times. But in one game we walked seven batters and hit two more and when that happens you get beat.”

Then there was the third game, and true to form, it was a lot different.

Cloquet beat Grand Rapids 12-0 and Hunter Roberts threw a seven-inning no-hitter.

“That’s just how it’s been,” Conklin said. “Feast or famine. We’ve been inconsistent and I’m being kind in saying that.”

Still, Cloquet earned a fourth seed, and a first-round matchup against Hibbing on Thursday at 10 a.m. at Ordean Stadium, by virtue of that 5-2 record in seeding games. A win will see the team through to the second round on Friday in Hermantown, but a loss will see Cloquet playing at 7 p.m. Thursday night at Ordean to stay in the tournament.

Nisswa (7-0 in seeding games), Duluth Lakeview (6-1) and Grand Rapids (5-2) are the top three seeds.

“On our best day, if both teams play their best game, we would beat Grand Rapids,” Conklin said. “But they’ve beaten us badly, too, this year so whichever team shows up for us is the one that plays.”

Conklin bluntly assessed his team’s chances.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we wind up in the last two if we play like we can,” he said. “But it’s equally possible that we’ll play one game well and then stink up the place in the next game.”

Conklin noted that of the team’s six seniors who will leave the Legion program after the season, none have worked more than 4-2/3 innings on the mound, meaning that the pitching staff is young and should get better.

“The seniors on the team do other things for us,” he said. “We are young on the mound.”

And in a double-elimination tournament where pitching is vital, Conklin said his team faces longer odds.

“We aren’t deep enough on the mound for a long tournament,” he said.  “Like I said, we are who we are. We can win two or three straight and then rattle off five or six losses in a row.”

In a tournament where just two losses are fatal, Conklin hopes the right team shows up.