Legion team heads to regular-season finale
Seven years ago, the players who are seniors on this summer's Cloquet American Legion baseball team won a state championship as 11-year-olds.
Now, five of them remain and they're trying to reach another state tournament for the same coach who has guided them since they were boys.
Bruce Baker's team is 9-4 heading into the Wednesday, July 25, regular-season finale at Wade Stadium against the West Duluth Cubs. After that, the playoffs in Grand Rapids loom large.
"We have as good a chance as anyone," Baker said. "But the fun of it is that these kids like each other a lot and it shows."
There are 16 rostered players on the summer team, about half a dozen of which are callups from the VFW team. And they can all play.
Despite having the best record at last weekend's Ely tournament, Cloquet didn't win — they finished 4-1 but lost the championship game to Superior, which finished 3-2 — but there was a lot to be happy about.
For example, in the four games of pool play, Cloquet never had to use its bullpen. They got four straight complete-game victories, which is almost unheard of at any level of baseball.
"It was really good from a pitching standpoint," Baker said. "You don't see that kind of pitching often at this level."
Cloquet opened pool play with an 11-1 win over BOLD, from the Bird Island area of southwest Minnesota. Tim Pokornowski pitched a complete game, Noah Niemi had two hits, including a home run, and Cooper Grashorn had three hits.
That was followed by an 8-0 win over International Falls, with sophomore-to-be Cade Anderson working a complete game, backed by a Pokornowski two-run homer.
Biroqua, a Wisconsin town near LaCrosse, was next, and Jon Baker pitched a complete game, scoring the winning run himself in a 3-2 triumph that featured only seven combined hits by both teams.
The fourth pool play game saw Cloquet matched up with Esko, and Cloquet won 8-5 behind Grashorn, who was pitching for the first time all season. His personal highlight was a third-inning strikeout of Esko's do-everything star, Tyler Peterson, with the bases loaded.
That put Cloquet into the championship game, where both teams had run out of arms. Superior finished 2-2 in pool play in a three-way tie, but advanced on fewest runs allowed — and then beat Cloquet 11-10.
"Wild game," Baker said. "Just crazy. It went back and forth, each team getting one or two runs to go ahead of the other — unfortunately, they batted last and scored twice in the last of the seventh."
This time, the teams combined for 30 hits, with Superior banging out 18 and Cloquet 12.
But the wins and losses were almost secondary to a great weekend in the northwoods.
"A lot of us camped at Lake Vermilion and then we drove to Ely to play," Baker said. "We had three or four families there and the kids had a lot of fun catching walleyes and playing baseball in between."
But baseball will take center stage for the time being starting Wednesday, July 25. Cloquet is 4-1 in league play and has, as Baker says, as good a shot as anyone at making it to state.
"Everyone is healthy," he said. "At the start of the summer, we were missing some kids, but everyone is in good shape now. Now that we're healthy, we have good pitching and sound hitting. We'll be as strong as anyone in the tournament."
The team has no games scheduled in the last week of the season because of a hockey jamboree scheduled for later this week.
"We have lots of pitchers, but half our kids are hockey players and we couldn't schedule any games," he said.
And a tournament win would be a great way for the seniors to go out.
"A lot of these kids, I've coached since they were little," Baker said. "I've enjoyed this group all the way through, winning the state championship. It's all been fun."