Rebels rely on defense to down Lumberjacks

Moose Lake-Willow River baseball coach Matt Niedzielski and teammates have jokingly tried to get Joey Whited to cut his shoulder-length hair for the past several seasons, but the senior simply won't budge ... much like the defense that played beh...

Moose Lake-Willow River senior Joey Whited throws a pitch during Friday's baseball game against Cloquet. The Rebels defeated the Lumberjacks 5-3. Dave Harwig/

Moose Lake-Willow River baseball coach Matt Niedzielski and teammates have jokingly tried to get Joey Whited to cut his shoulder-length hair for the past several seasons, but the senior simply won't budge … much like the defense that played behind Whited last Friday when the Rebels relied on making plays and small ball to beat Cloquet 5-3 on a sunny afternoon in Moose Lake.

Whited, a 5-foot-8, 135-pound right-hander who hurled all seven innings last week, scattered seven Lumberjack hits and his defense made three errors, but when Cloquet crowded the bases often, the Rebels were rock solid.

Whited, admitting he's not an overpowering pitcher by any means, concurred.

"I just rely on keeping the ball low and working the zone," said Whited, also the team's leadoff batter. "I kept the ball low, got a lot of ground balls and they made a lot of plays. We have a younger team, but our defense has been getting better every game.

"Everybody stepped up," he added.


Niedzielski echoed that message, explaining his Rebels (4-3) rely on varsity returnees in Whited - who plays centerfield when he doesn't pitch - senior third baseman Rex Janke and junior second baseman Wyatt Lampel. Both Janke and Lampel can chuck it, too. Senior first baseman Chet Morgan also contributes, along with sophomores in shortstop Ian Coil and catcher Mark Fossum.

Lampel, Janke, Morgan and senior Tanner Ramirez all recorded hits for ML-WR last week, including a pair of bunts in the bottom of the third, both of which Cloquet (3-5) couldn't record outs on.

The Rebels, which trailed 2-0 at the time, tallied three in the frame, added two more insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth and held off the Lumberjacks' late rally try in the seventh.

"That's a big win for us and our season is moving forward," said Niedzielski of beating Cloquet, a team which won the Class AA consolation title last spring, but graduated six seniors, five of whom pitched. "They have a history of being exceptional. They've kind of had our number, but it was finally nice to get on the other side. A win like that just shows we have the ability to play good baseball."

ML-WR, which lost 8-7 at Proctor Tuesday in eight innings, has a handful of guys who were also a part of the Moose Lake Outlaws American Legion team last summer that played their way all the way through district, state and even national tournament play. That core helps keep them a confident Section 7AA contender.

"Give them credit, they made plays," said Cloquet coach Rick Norrgard, who counted his team stranding nine runners on base compared to the Rebels' two, while his squad also out-hit the hosts 7-4 and made two fewer errors. "Sometimes those days happen, but that's why you play the game."

Cloquet’s latest game was perhaps their brightest, when they earned a much-needed 5-4 victory over a talented Duluth Marshall club Tuesday at Ed Mettner Field. Senior Chanler Dilday was the winning pitcher, while classmate Gabe Sorenson and junior Joe Backus combined for four hits.

Sorenson was the losing pitcher last week and classmate Trent Anderson was the only one to have a pair of hits, but their teammates and especially their coach remain confident.


"We're still trying to find our identity, but we're getting better and making steps in the right direction," Norrgard said. "We expect to come to the ballpark and win the game."

Meanwhile, when Whited comes to the ballpark in Moose Lake, the 18-year-old still hears it from all angles to cut his long brown locks. He also sports a full-grown beard with his head of cabbage.

"If you can grow it, why not?" said Whited, who began growing out his hair during his freshman year during the hockey season. "I love it.

"I get comments all of the time about it," he continued. "It's kind of my trademark."

Niedzielski noted Whited has put his hair up in a ponytail and even in two braids for one game last year.

"He's a lot of fun," said Niedzielski, a big supporter of Whited and all of his hair. "He's a field rat and just loves everything about baseball. He's the guy who reminds us we're still playing a game. He's got a positive attitude that is infectious. He's a leader for us both on and off the field."

As for Whited realistically cutting his hair?

"I think he got pretty close in 10th grade, but man, I don't think he's ever going to," Niedzielski said, always joking about the possibility. "That would be a crime now. There's something magical in there."


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