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Pitch perfect outlook: Cloquet confident on mound

Catching "a couple" of waves off the coast of Orlando, Fla., last week over Spring Break, Cloquet senior Nate Weets admitted he's still in the beginning stages of being a surfer.

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Cloquet baseball assistant coach Eric Hagen works with pitchers Mason Brenner (left) and Brandon Conklin (right) during practice on Thursday. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com

Catching “a couple” of waves off the coast of Orlando, Fla., last week over Spring Break, Cloquet senior Nate Weets admitted he’s still in the beginning stages of being a surfer.

As a baseball pitcher, however, he’s a varsity veteran.

That’s the case for many of the Lumberjacks this spring, as Weets is just one part of a five-headed senior pitching monster that Cloquet will rely on each day they take the dirt.

The Lumberjacks, which heartbreakingly lost the Section 7AA final last year to Aitkin after being beaten twice on the same night, were on the dirt again Tuesday at Ed Mettner Field in Cloquet. With what Coach Rick Norrgard said were “vicious” winds, the day’s low temp was 30, but at times, it felt like the teens. Weets noted it wasn’t the sunshine state.

“I wasn’t too used to it today - I had a long week of hot weather full of golfing and surfing,” said a tanned Weets after spending nearly two weeks in Orlando and Cocoa Beach. “Today was a little cold outside. I looked around at our guys afterward and I think we all enjoyed getting into our cars.”

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Weets, a 5-foot-11 right-handed hurler, is one of a quintet of drivers for a Lumberjacks’ pitching staff that is without a doubt one of the deepest around. On the varsity lineup card for several years, Weets is joined by heavy-tossing classmate Brandon Conklin, as well as seniors Gavin Takkunen, Mason Brenner and Hunter Roberts. Norrgard said juniors Gabe Sorenson and Jeremy Bushey will help, as well.

And in a land where weather can push games on top of games on top of games, Norrgard likes the length of his pitching roster.

“That’s what baseball is; it starts on the mound,” said Norrgard. “If you have pitching, you can play with anybody.

“If one of those guys has an off day, we have a lot of depth to fall back on,” Norrgard continued. “It’s a nice problem for coaches to have to try and get everyone innings.”

Conklin, the hardest thrower on the team, is pursuing his favorite sport at the collegiate level next year, but he and his teammates have some unfinished business still this season. For a group that has played together since elementary school, Conklin spoke for all when saying their team is confident.

“Since we were 10 years old, we’ve been playing on the same team,” Conklin said of their senior group, also added by Chase Keye. “We’ve just kind of built a family between us.”

Norrgard, who said his squad doesn’t talk about their Aitkin loss at all and is moving forward, noted if they want to get back to that game again, it will stem from their veterans.

“Those six seniors are the leaders out there, this is their team now,” he said. “Hopefully we can get back to the finals and have another state opportunity, but we have to play well.”

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Or at least better than the beginning-surf skills of Weets.

“I caught a couple waves and rode them in,” Weets said with a laugh, “but I’m definitely better at baseball than surfing.”

Like the Lumberjacks, section foe Esko has a deep pitching staff and laundry list of returners with experience. Coach Ben Haugen said the likes of athletes Nick Emanuel, Aaron Olson, Austin Carlson, Cole Litsey, Matt Bolgrean, Darin Davidson, Derek Peterson and Tyler Chicos - all upperclassmen starters - all return to give him optimism.

“We’ve got a lot of kids back, but we don’t have that bona fide ace,” Haugen said of his pitching staff. “I think it’s going to be a good year of northeastern Minnesota baseball. Our section’s really tough, so we’re going to have to learn how to fight and dig and scrap and claw to get out of it.”

Fellow section and Polar League rival Moose Lake-Willow River is in the same boat. The Rebels - like the Eskomos - return eight starters according to Coach Matt Niedzielski. Three-sport athlete Brad Fossum will head the bunch, along with Eric Prachar and Teddy Ryan - three of ML-WR’s nine seniors - all of whom give them upside. Seniors Charlie Adamczak and David Moonen will also help.

“We have seniors all over the place - probably three or four guys that anyone in the area would want,” Niedzielski said. “It’s a crew of boys who have played a lot of baseball.”

SMALL SCHOOL NOTES

Polar Leaguer Barnum brings back Tony Bender again as coach. The Bombers will be young in spots, yet athletic all around, especially behind the talents of Christopher Carlson, Mitchell Weller and the Ziegler brothers, Colton and Thomas.

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Across Interstate 35 in Wrenshall, the small school is fielding a varsity baseball team again behind Coach Doug Frank. The Wrens, which lost 17-zip at South Ridge on a windy Tuesday, roster 16 players - nine of whom are seniors. Several vets include Frank's son, Andrew, Luke Vine, Garrett Stavang, Chase Morneau and Aaron Adkins as senior stalwarts.

Speaking of South Ridge, the Panthers are propelled by co-coaches Tony DeLeon and former College of St. Scholastica player Tyler Olin. Whacking Wrenshall Tuesday in Culver, South Ridge has plenty of common last names on their roster, such as Karppinen, Janke, Lisic and Wood, while Zach Johnson, Reid Clark and Austin Miller make for toughness, too.

In Carlton, the Bulldogs also began their season this week, falling 3-0 on a cold Monday at Mountain Iron-Buhl. Carlton may be the youngest team in the league, sporting seven players too young to drive. Their three seniors are Dom Bennett, Mike Moralez and Josh Dallman - all football players with seemingly endless engines.

Cromwell-Wright will again combine with Highway 210 neighbor McGregor, as the pair of Polar League rivals have been cooperating for several seasons now. Of a small number of Cardinals-turned-Mercuries traveling daily are football- and basketball-playing brothers Cy and Cedrek Sworski.

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College had a club program for several years; however, the Thunder have cancelled their entire 2015 season, along with their softball program.

With Wednesday morning's freezing rain and damp weather, many teams were shuffled inside, but Mother Nature has been far better for spring coaches and players this year, opposed to the last two snow-shortened seasons.

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Cloquet catchers Chase Keye (front) and Austin Workman work on pop-up drills during Thursday's practice at Mettner Field. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com

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