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Grand Rapids’ Noah Johnson lets a pitch fly during the Thunderhawks’ game against Duluth Denfeld on Wednesday at Ordean Field. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

Prep Notebook: No-shows haunt Grand Rapids baseball team

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There was a method to Bill Kinnunen’s madness when he concocted a brutal schedule for his Grand Rapids baseball team this spring.

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Kinnunen, in his 14th season with the Thunderhawks, expected to have a veteran club capable of returning to the state tournament after last year’s near-miss. Grand Rapids won 17 games before running out of steam against Forest Lake in the finals of the 2013 Section 7AAA tournament.

With so many players coming back this time around, the coach loaded up his schedule. He wanted to challenge a squad that would enter the season with big potential and even bigger goals.

“Obviously, I put it together assuming (key returners) were going to be here and we wanted to get ready for the playoffs,” Kinnunen said.

Then, piece by piece, his roster started to crumble. Seven players that Kinnunen expected to come out for baseball never showed. Some opted instead to focus on hockey or basketball, while others were bit by the injury bug, which has continued to decimate the Grand Rapids lineup.

Consequently, the Thunderhawks are what Kinnunen called a “good junior varsity team.” The problem? They’re routinely taking the field with some of the best teams in the state. Last week, for example, Grand Rapids played four consecutive games against teams ranked in the top 20 of the latest Class AAA poll. Included in that stretch, in which the Thunderhawks went 1-3, was an 11-3 loss to Minnetonka at the Skippers’ tournament.

“When we played ’Tonka, they had 17 seniors out of their 18 guys,” said Kinnunen, who opposed the state’s fourth-ranked team with three freshmen, four sophomores, a junior and a senior.

The youngsters are being forced to grow up in a hurry.

“It’s a very steep learning curve for these guys,” Kinnunen said. “They come up and the kids are bigger, stronger and faster than VFW or the ‘B’ squad that they were playing last year.”

Jackson Gessell, one of two seniors for the Thunderhawks (4-9), admitted it was frustrating to see his classmates and former teammates invest their time elsewhere this spring. Without them, Grand Rapids has taken its lumps, but Gessell said the youthful mistakes that were so prevalent early in the season have waned.

“It sucks not having kids that you expect to come out, but we want the kids out here that really want to play the game,” Gessell, a pitcher and outfielder, said. “If you’re not in it 100 percent, it’s not really worth your time.”

The team’s other senior, Andy Carlisle, who has missed time recently with a concussion, said the short-term goal is to improve with an eye toward the postseason. When the playoffs start, every team’s record resets to 0-0.

The Thunderhawks have been in all but three of their games. One of the ugly losses, 10-2 to Bemidji in the first game of an April 21 doubleheader, was avenged with a 4-2 victory in the nightcap when Gessell allowed one earned run and struck out seven in a complete-game effort.

“It’s hard to keep losing these games, but we’re close,” Carlisle said. “You take a few more errors away and we’d pretty much win most of our games.”

Athletic directors receive awards

Moose Lake athletic director Kathy Fredrickson, who is retiring at the end of the school year, recently was inducted into the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association Hall of Fame.

Fredrickson, who coached the Moose Lake volleyball team to a state championship in 1975, also was named the Region 7A AD of the year.

  • Another longtime member of the Northland’s prep sports scene and a former rival volleyball coach of Fredrickson, Hermantown’s Beth Clark, recently went into the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

In 26 seasons on the Hawks’ bench, Clark has compiled a 404-269 record while qualifying for three state tournaments. The Cromwell native also coached volleyball at Hermantown until becoming the school’s athletic director in 2006.

Miscellaneous

Because of a ruling this past week by the National Federation of State High School Associations Basketball Rules Committee, players lined up for a free throw now will be able to move into the lane when the ball is released from the shooter’s hands instead of once the shot touches the rim.

  • According to the Roseau boys hockey team’s Twitter feed, the Rams will host Duluth East next year in a rematch of last year’s state-tournament fifth-place game, won 3-2 by Roseau.
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