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Cloquet advances to 7AA Final with extra-inning win

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HERMANTOWN—It was only fitting that the Cloquet and Duluth Marshall baseball teams played extra innings Tuesday.

Surviving a 6-5 scare in an 11-inning marathon in Cloquet just two weeks earlier, the Lumberjacks again slipped past the Hilltoppers 7-6 in a Section 7AA winner's bracket final game that took eight innings and well over three hours to play Tuesday evening at Fichner Field in Hermantown. Cloquet now faces Aitkin today, Thursday, at Wade Stadium in the Section 7AA championship at 5 p.m.

"It came down to the last inning again, just like it always does," said Cloquet senior second baseman Dylan McIvor, who hit in teammate Gavin Takkunen on a sacrifice fly ball to right-center field with one out in the bottom of the eighth Tuesday. "We found a way."

Things looked bleak early on, as the top-seeded Lumberjacks (13-6) trailed by as much as 6-1, issuing all of their opponents' runs on errors — from left field, third base, second base and shortstop — in the first three innings.

"We started out poor on defense," said Cloquet Coach Rick Norrgard of his team's five errors. "But credit to these guys, they didn't quit. The could have quit. You're darn lucky to get a win with five errors, but we stopped the bleeding, got a big inning and came back."

That comeback started in the bottom of the fourth. Trailing 6-2, the Lumberjacks scored four times, beginning with an RBI-single from senior catcher Travis Bartlett. Two batters later, junior centerfielder Gavin Takkunen ripped the game's deepest ball of the day on a two-RBI double over the outfielders' heads in right center, before junior pitcher Brandon Conklin tied the game when he knocked in Takkunen on a sharply hit single to short left field.

The hard-throwing Conklin, also the game's winning pitcher — tossing six-plus innings of relief for the starter Takkunen — then sat down the next 12 straight batters for Duluth Marshall. Two of his eight strikeouts came in the top of the eighth, before McIvor's walk-off sacrifice.

For the Cinderella Hilltoppers (10-9), the section's No. 8 and bottom seed, senior right-handed pitcher Jake Fugere was brilliant, hurling seven strong innings before giving way to losing pitcher and lefty classmate Pierce Risdon. The private school had shocked everyone by beating the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 5 seeds before falling to Cloquet and then being eliminated by the Gobblers late Tuesday night, 1-0.

"We built our season building up to moments like this," said Duluth Marshall Coach Joe Wicklund of a Tuesday atmosphere including loud dugouts, fans standing in the bleachers and plenty of pressure moments. "Cloquet is the cream of the crop, but it's such a balanced section on any given day."

Tuesday was a chance for former Cloquet graduate Thomas Jezierski to see some familiar faces, as the 23-year-old now serves as an assistant coach for the Hilltoppers. Calling pitches from the dugout all game, Jezierski — who also caught for the College of St. Scholastica — donned his black and yellow-brimmed cap, as fellow Cloquet and CSS pitching alumnus, Eric Hagen, wore his purple shirt and white pants while coaching third base as an assistant for the Lumberjacks.

"I was chatting for forever over there," Jezierski said about warm-ups with a laugh. "This is fun no matter who you're playing for. Purple, blue, black, yellow, it doesn't matter."

What matters now for the Lumberjacks, though, is beating Aitkin (20-4) and advancing to their first state tournament since 2010. Conklin, just a seventh-grader at the time, vividly remembers watching the celebration at Wade Stadium then, and only hopes to have his own version as a player now.

"I've thought about that forever," Conklin said. "It's going to be a dream come true if it happens."

Conklin, who broke his hip running to first base as a freshman playing in the section final in 2012, said it'll be fine this time around, as will his fast-throwing right arm, if called upon to pitch again with nearly no rest.

"It doesn't matter if I catch 50 innings or pitch 50 innings, as long as we win and do what we need to do, I don't really care," said Conklin. "We've been talking about this from the beginning."