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Cloquet claws back to second

The Cloquet VFW baseball team has never qualified for the state tournament, but this summer's cast of 19 talented teenage boys was seeking to change all of that.

Duluth East, meanwhile, had its own agenda for advancing.

Despite a valiant run, East clipped Cloquet 6-2 Monday in Ely, earning the District 8 championship and a spot in next week's VFW state tournament held in Willmar, Minn.

The four-run loss was one that stung, stopping Cloquet one step shy of their town's first-ever trip to the summer's state pinnacle. It also put a close to their time on the diamond, for this summer at least.

Cloquet, coached by Daryl Niemi, finished the season 12-8, including a 6-3 mark in the postseason.

Still, it wasn't without a courageous charge through sub-district and district play these past couple of weeks. After beating the likes of Proctor and Duluth Marshall en route to this past weekend's eight-team, double-elimination district event, a depth-laden Cloquet squad — stocked with 19 players and plenty of pitching — was confident in their chances of winning it all and heading southbound to Willmar.

"We played six games in three days," said Niemi of the districts, noting they played two games this past Saturday, Sunday and Monday — going 4-2 — on top of three more last week in sub-districts and several more for some kids on the American Legion team as well. "It was a great team effort."

Cloquet started district play Saturday afternoon with a 6-4 loss to the hands of Grand Rapids in nearby Soudan. Jon Baker was the game's losing pitcher. Not to be outdone with their season on the line, Cloquet then eliminated Ely 11-1 that same day to stay alive, with Gavin Rasmussen picking up the pitching win.

Sunday was a special day. One loss away from being finished, Cloquet carded a pair of late-inning rallies in a wild 11-8 comeback victory over West Duluth, followed by an even wilder 15-14 win past Grand Rapids which finished with Tim Pokornowski's game-ending, walk-off home run.

Both come-from-behind wins started in the sixth innings, as Cloquet counted nine runs against both teams. Baker got the win on the rubber versus West Duluth, while Rasmussen did so with Grand Rapids.

Pokornowski's movie-like blast in the bottom of the seventh — which Coach Niemi dubbed as "heroic" — was in fact his second round-tripper of the game and third of the day, as the three-sport athlete put on a Herculean power-hitting clinic over his three days.

In all, Pokornowski — also the town's football quarterback and a basketball forward — hit a dizzying six home runs, four doubles and scored 16 runs in six games. He was 17-for-21 at the plate, hitting a seemingly unfair .810 over the weekend. In fact, Pokornowski hit a homer in five of his club's six games.

He did the same on Monday, crushing out a ball against Virginia in a 13-3 win that advanced Cloquet to the final with East. Pitcher Pat Delizo earned the complete-game win on the hill.

By then, however, getting to unbeaten East — after winning four consecutive elimination games in a row, mixed with several injuries and a few kids missing due to prior commitments — Cloquet was out of gas. Due to the tournament format, Cloquet needed to win twice, but were simply too wiped to do so once. Despite going 3-for-4 at the dish, Pokornowski was held homer-less and was also the game's losing hurler on the bump.

Still, for Niemi — a former Cloquet alumni himself, whose son Noah is also a first- and third-baseman for the team — coaching this group couldn't have been any more enjoyable.

"It was truly a pleasure for me to be able to coach these boys," said Niemi. "They're a great group with a ton of potential in everything they do. I'm looking forward to watching them all in the future."

Although he has enjoyed his time, Niemi admitted he wasn't certain regarding his future as VFW coach. If the opportunity again arises, he said he will gladly help his hometown program continue to develop.

When it's time. For now, the volunteer coach has other things to worry about.

"Now off to seventh- and eighth-grade football," he said.