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High school baseball season preview: Hermantown ace back for more

Kole Zuidmulder is one of Hermantown’s top pitchers going into this high school baseball season. Last year, Zuidmulder threw 31 strikeouts in 31 innings as a sophomore for the Hawks. Clint Austin /

Kole Zuidmulder hasn’t been around forever, it just seems that way.

He excelled on Hermantown’s baseball team that qualified for the state tournament in 2013, and played leading roles while helping the Hawks to the section final in football last fall and basketball this winter.

The multi-talented athlete, though, is just a junior, and he’s ready to anchor a retooled pitching staff that will determine whether Hermantown is able to defend its Section 7AA crown.

At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, Zuidmulder looks imposing perched atop the mound, and he backs it up with a fastball that can reach the mid-80s.

“He’s such a competitor, and that comes from being a three-sport athlete,” Hawks coach Mike Zagelmeyer said during his team’s parking-lot practice Tuesday. “He wants to win and he’ll do what it takes to win.”

Zuidmulder, along with senior Luke Jacques, will be relied upon to front a rotation missing stalwarts Kevin Folman and Kevin Stocke, both of whom now are pitching collegiately — Folman at North Dakota State and Stocke at Minnesota Duluth. The two Kevins led Hermantown to state for the first time since the program’s five-peat of section titles from 2001-05.

“It was fun to learn from those two guys,” Zuidmulder said. “They had been through it all in their high school careers.”

A bona fide workhorse, Zuidmulder went 6-0 with a 2.01 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 31 innings as a sophomore. At the heart of his success is a fastball that impresses with both its velocity and movement.

“He pitches harder than all of us and he pitches harder than, I would say, most of the kids in the area,” Jacques said.

After Zuidmulder and Jacques, Zagelmeyer can turn to a deep but relatively inexperienced collection of arms that includes Eric Gotz, Nolan Juusola, Jace Thomas and Jake Becks. Pitching depth will be especially crucial considering the Hawks will try to squeeze in all 20 of their regular-season games in a little more than a month, thanks to winter’s reluctance to leave the Northland.

Hermantown’s hopes start with the big guy. A strong-armed quarterback on the gridiron and an athletic center on the hardwood, Zuidmulder, who batted .341 a year ago, nonetheless says baseball is his favorite sport.

“I’ve loved baseball since I was a kid,” he said. “I always thought baseball was going to be my sport through high school and, hopefully, college if it comes around.”

Among the Hawks’ other key returnees are Scott Wasbotten, Brendan Burnap and Thomas Madison.

Hermantown hopes to open its season with a doubleheader against Superior on Friday in Mauston, Wis., which is in the central part of the state, about 260 miles away.

Elsewhere in Section 7AA

  • International Falls, 17-6 a year ago and the section runner-up, returns two of the area’s best players in Ben Humbert and Wyatt Ulrich. Humbert, a junior, dazzled on the mound in last year’s section playoffs, when he allowed just one earned run and struck out 28 in 20 innings. He finished the season with a 6-1 mark and a 1.08 ERA. Ulrich, a senior outfielder, batted .425 and was 4-1 with a 2.41 ERA as a pitcher.
  • New-look Proctor, tasked with replacing its top three pitchers and a number of three- and four-year starters, will be young. Coach Kyle Wojtysiak says talent abounds, though, among his underclassmen. That includes sophomores Jake Malec and Matt Morris. Evan Scherber, a senior shortstop who hit .400 with 14 RBIs last spring, returns along with senior outfielder Joe Carter, a .387 hitter a year ago. The Rails were 11-7 in 2013 after advancing to state in 2011 and ’12.
  • Junior Brandon Conklin is back for Cloquet a year after posting a 5-0 record with a miniscule 0.85 ERA. Conklin also recorded a .377 batting average to go with 18 RBIs while serving as the Lumberjacks’ part-time catcher. Cloquet lost just two seniors from last year’s 12-8 squad. Other players coach Rick Norrgard will rely upon include Gavin Takkunen and Nate Weets.
  • Esko should benefit from the return of talented pitcher Corey McDonnell, who didn’t play last year. Junior first baseman Matt Bolgrean hit .458 last spring for the Eskomos, whose home field, which was refurbished during the school’s recent facilities upgrade, likely won’t be ready until late summer.
  • Joe Wicklund takes the helm at Duluth Marshall, which hopes to make some noise in 7AA after going 9-11 in 2013 when the Hilltoppers resided in Section 7A.

Section 7AAA East rife with experience Veterans permeate John Rudolph’s roster at Duluth East, where 11 seniors hope to help the Greyhounds contend in a daunting section that includes Grand Rapids, Elk River, Andover and Forest Lake.

Chris Olson, one of four returning starters, hit about .450 a year ago to lead East. The St. Thomas-bound Olson plays first base when he’s not on the mound — he’s one-third of a talented trio of starting hurlers. The others are Jake Turner and Trever Laakso. Turner, who tossed a two-hit shutout in a 3-0 victory over Rochester Mayo on April 11, expects to play at St. Scholastica, and Laakso is headed to NCAA Division II Southwest Minnesota State.

Willem Aldrich has a lot of responsibility as just a sophomore. He will catch and serve as the team’s closer.

Wes Anderson enters his third year as the Greyhounds’ starting shortstop and Nick Andersen returns at third base.

Rudolph believes East will pitch and catch well enough to improve upon last year’s 8-7 mark.

“Defensively, we’ll be strong — at least I hope we are,” the coach said. “I don’t know how well we’re going to hit. We may start a little slow because we haven’t been able to see a ball outside.”

  • A year after losing to Forest Lake in the section finals, Grand Rapids has had to reload with a cast of youngsters. That’s because seven players that coach Bill Kinnunen expected to come out this spring didn’t, including Hunter Shepard, the outstanding goalie who instead is focusing on his hockey career.

“We’re going to take our lumps this year because this is by far the toughest schedule we’ve ever had,” Kinnunen said.

The Thunderhawks have played six games. They picked up their first win Monday in the back end of a doubleheader against Bemidji when Jackson Gessell allowed one earned run in seven innings to key a 4-2 victory.

Gessell and Andy Carlisle are the only two seniors on Kinnunen’s roster.

  • Duluth Denfeld is looking to bounce back from a 3-18 campaign. Key returners include senior Jake Kidd, who hit .318 last spring, and junior infielder Nick Thompson, who had an on-base percentage north of .400. Freshman Brody Russell returns after starting at shortstop as an eighth-grader. Despite their struggles, the Hunters upset St. Francis in last season’s section playoffs.

Section 7A One Bernsdorf back for Floodwood While brother Trevor graduated, Riley Bernsdorf is back for Floodwood, which advanced to the school’s first state tournament in any team sport in 2013.

Bernsdorf hit .529 as a sophomore, when he belted four home runs and tallied 29 RBIs. On the mound, he posted a 7-1 record, a 1.28 ERA and a 50-to-7 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 49⅓ innings.

Floodwood coach Adam Johnson said that with so many fresh faces on a roster that lost a quartet of four-year starters, it was imperative for the Polar Bears to get outside early and find suitable replacements. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

The five seniors that graduated last spring had a four-year record of 62-24.

Floodwood, 18-4 a year ago and 1-2 at the state tournament, also returns key cogs in Dylan Hendrickson, Shawn Anderson, Kyle Tamminen, Willow Christenson, Jonah Schnortz and Tanner Heggedahl.

  • Ely returns a wealth of talent from last year’s 12-5 team, which was stunned in the opening round of the playoffs by Littlefork-Big Falls despite outhitting the Vikings 15-7. Louie Gerzin hit .421 last season and went 4-1 with a 2.76 ERA. Pat Huisman batted .456 and was 3-1 pitching with a 0.82 ERA.
  • Carlton has holes to fill after finishing second in 7A in 2013. The Bulldogs have six returnees with starting experience, including three-year starter Brytton George.
  • Barnum coach Tony Bender says the Bombers expect to compete for a section title after losing only three seniors from last year’s 7-7 team. Junior shortstop Mitchell Weller had a team-high .442 batting average, while Zac Carlson was 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA and batted .389 offensively.
  • Cherry has a new coach in Brian Kemp, who will look to Tim Bukovich, Mike Mesia, Ian Bechtel and Colton Herring to forge a turnaround after the Tigers stumbled to a 4-8 mark a year ago.

WISCONSIN Superior mixing and matching Superior coach Don Dembroski will try to identify a starting lineup from a roster that includes just three seniors, only one of whom — Taavi Mattson — started a year ago.

The Spartans, who must find replacements for Grant Rindal, Nik Mattson, Colton Yepma and Jordan Hughes, were 8-6 last year, including 5-1 in the Lake Superior Conference. They lost eight seniors to graduation.

Dembroski is entering his 16th season as Superior’s coach.

  • Second-year coach David Crail expects marked improvement from a Northwestern squad that was winless (0-10) in 2013. To that end, he will look to Jay Karich, David Bethards and Blake Reijo to get things turned around.

Five players to watch

Kole Zuidmulder, Hermantown

Junior pitcher/infielder

  • Overpowering right-hander went 6-0 with a 2.01 ERA while averaging a punchout per inning a year ago for     Section 7AA champs, and hit .341 with a Northland-best 37 RBIs

Riley Bernsdorf, Floodwood

Junior pitcher/catcher

  • One of the area’s best hitters posted a .529 batting     average with 29 RBIs, and also went 7-1 on the mound with a 1.28 ERA and a 50-to-7 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in     49⅓ innings

Brandon Conklin, Cloquet

Junior pitcher/catcher

  • Was 5-0 with equally impressive ERA (0.85) and opponents’ batting average (.160) as a sophomore; part-time backstop batted .377 with 18 RBIs

Ben Humbert, International Falls

Junior pitcher/infielder

  • Dominant in regular season, Humbert was better in last year’s section playoffs when he allowed just one earned run and fanned 28 in 20 innings as the Broncos narrowly missed the state tournament

Wyatt Ulrich, International Falls

Senior outfielder/pitcher

  • Hit .425, stole eight bases and scored 20 runs for the Broncos last spring while also going 4-1 with a 2.41 ERA as a pitcher