Baseball preview: Panthers prowling for state encore
Despite some of his South Ridge baseball buddies being able to hit home runs, veteran Elias Tuominen admittedly is still trying to knock the ball out of the park.
"I've hit the fence and had a ground-rule double, but that's about it," the Panther senior said. "Hopefully, this is the year. I'm crossing my fingers."
With the experience South Ridge enjoyed last spring, the Panthers are likely keeping their fingers crossed for more reasons than one.
South Ridge rallied by Carlton to win two games and claim the Section 7A crown last year, only to finish fourth place in Class A during the Panthers' first state baseball appearance in school history.
"It's something we'll come out with some of our favorite memories from high school with," said Tuominen, a third baseman. "It was so satisfying."
"You just can't beat that experience down there," added coach Tyler Olin, entering his sixth season at South Ridge. "We know guys are going to throw their best at us. But we have high hopes and are going to try our best to get back down there again."
That certainly could be the case with the bodies the Panthers return, including Tuominen, fellow senior Joey Janke and junior Logan Young — all captains and do-it-all ball players.
"I could probably pull all three names out of a hat for where to bat them at one, two or three," Olin said. "They can play anywhere."
"We got a lot of guys who can play different positions," added Janke, the team's sure-handed catcher. "We're pretty good, one through nine. We've got a lot of threats."
South Ridge threatened for the 7A title in each of the past four years, including finally breaking through last May, finishing 20-7. Their big-game experience is second-to-none, while Olin said his seniors have been around since his first day, five seasons ago.
"They could probably run the team for me," said Olin, who played collegiately at St. Scholastica. "They've been around for years."
And in this final year for some, they'd love to make a return trip to the state's pinnacle.
"There are some expectations, but I think we can handle it. It just makes us want to compete more. It just makes us better," Janke said. "It just makes us want to get back down there."
"That would just prove we have quite the program here," Tuominen said. "It'd be pretty special for me and Joey to be able to go down one more time."
Barnum finished 6-10 last year and returns a plethora of veterans to its roster for Tony Bender, now in his 10th season.
Dawson Sample, Connor Buell, Nathan Finifrock, Jacob Nynas, Ryan Weller, Gavin John and Max Salzer are all seniors, giving the Bombers as much age as any.
"They're a good group of kids," Bender said. "We've got some experience. Hopefully, we can start off better than we did last year."
Carlton rallied last year, winning several straight elimination games en route to falling in the 7A final to the Panthers.
Finishing 11-13, the Bulldogs graduated some, but bring back Kaden Crane, Ryan Gray, Austin Parker and Tanner Anderson. Coach Ryan Schmidt's daughter, Peyton, is also in her senior season.
"We went on a run there last spring," said Schmidt, now in his 10th year. "And every pitch that we threw in the playoffs is back."
Cloquet carded a 16-8 mark last year, and welcomes back seniors Gavin Rasmussen, Noah Niemi and twin brothers Nick and Jon Baker.
Jon Baker, the team's ace, is an NCAA Division I signee, committed to South Dakota State University.
Rick Norrgard, now in his eighth year, added that sophomore Cade Anderson will help aid his quartet of longtime senior starters.
"It's always nice to have seniors," Norrgard said. "They've been a big part of this program for four years."
Cromwell-Wright will be playing a junior high schedule this spring after partnering for the last nine seasons with nearby McGregor. The Cardinals will have their first official team since 2010.
The club, coached by Dean Levinski — back coaching since he last led Cloquet's varsity from 1999-2005 — is also helped by major community baseball supporters Jake Kachinske, Robert Dahl and Curt Blomquist.
"I love baseball," said Levinski, 62. "And I wanted do anything I could to help get the program going."
Esko ended 21-5 a season ago, falling one step short of state when losing twice to Duluth Marshall in the 7AA final.
The loss admittedly still stings coach Ben Haugen, in his 13th season with the Eskomos, but he's confident returnees Mason Vinje, Peyton Koskela and James LeGarde will help ease the loss of a boatload of graduates.
"It didn't happen for us (last year)," Haugen said. "But it's a new year — a new season. That's good. We're going to be pretty green, but I think we've got guys who are up to the challenge."
Moose Lake-Willow River went 8-11 last spring, but will, like always, be a challenging foe, especially under first-year coach Spencer Clough.
Clough, a 2012 Moose Lake graduate who played five seasons for the Rebels as their mainstay catcher, takes over for Matt Niedzielski and has a number of veterans.
Danny Whited, Cooper Bexell, Ben Dewey, Carter Klund and Jordan Fjosne are all fine players for an excited Clough.
"Every day that the sun is shining is one day closer. I can't wait," Clough said. "To be able to have the opportunity to give back to the community that gave me all of my opportunities is something special."
Wrenshall was 9-7 last year and had its most special season to date, claiming the Polar League small-school's crown and winning their first 7A playoff game in school history.
Paul DeVall, now in his third season with the Wrens, said that although his team will be youthful this spring, Andrew Silverio and Randy Wimmer boast experience.
"It was a lot of fun," DeVall said of last season. "But I'm excited about the growth we're going to take this season. We're pretty young, but they're a good group of kids who are working hard."