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John Gilbert: Grandma calls, and Hunter ace Jukich settles into win

One of the great truisms of our society is that kids will maneuver, connive, manipulate and plot various ways to get around what their parents tell them. But they'll never cross their grandparents.

One of the great truisms of our society is that kids will maneuver, connive, manipulate and plot various ways to get around what their parents tell them. But they'll never cross their grandparents.
This is an unsung and underappreciated time of the sports season, when so much worthy focus is on things like the Twins spectacular start and the current series against the Indians, the Stanley Cup finals and whether Colorado can come back against New Jersey, or the NBA playoffs, where Allen Iverson and the 76ers will try to surprise the seemingly invincible Lakers.
Meanwhile, there is only time for scant notice of the spring high school sports season climax. While it may lack the focus of football, or the overwhelming public interest of hockey or basketball, few things are more gripping than a good high school baseball or softball game, or track meet, for that matter. And now that we're in sectional and state tournament play, every game features high drama.
And so it was with the Denfeld Hunters baseball team, which nobody expected to go far in Section 7AAA. Heck, nobody probably would have given them much hope to advance far in 7AA or even 7A against the outstanding teams at those levels. Denfeld has had its struggles in sports in recent years, but one thing you always can count on with kids from the blue-collar, working-class West End -- the Hunters will never cheat you on effort.
Sure enough, the Hunters overcame two thumpings at Duluth East's hands in the regular season to beat the Greyhounds 6-5 and gain this week's double-elimination final four at Princeton's Solheim Stadium. If you got to the stadium expecting to see the second half of Denfeld's Monday morning opener against Forest Lake, you found there was no second half to the game, because Forest Lake had whomped the Hunters 10-0 in a game shortened to five innings by the 10-run rule. Grand Rapids beat North Branch 3-0 in a tense pitching duel in the second game, then Forest Lake whipped Grand Rapids 12-9 to stay unbeaten in the first day.
There were some parents and fans on the Denfeld side when the Hunters took on North Branch in an elimination game of once-beaten teams Monday night. Working-class people can't get off work as well as others, you know. The leather lunged fans hollering advice to the Forest Lake kids, and similar parental intrusions from the North Branch section of the stands, were louder. But Denfeld parents tend also to watch and support, rather than try to help coaches with their work, anyway.
When the Hunters went out and socked the Vikings for an early lead, and starting pitcher Ben Jukich was keeping North Branch bats silenced, those few fans cheered. In the third inning, Jukich's left arm snaked out, but his two-strike offering hung high -- real high -- for a ball.
"Settle down, Ben!" came the loud, clear sound of a woman's voice.
Ben's next pitch was perfect -- strike three. Then he struck out the next hitter on three pitches and induced the next to pop up. The inning was over.
In the top of the fourth, Ben Jukich came to the plate. He took a high pitch, then focused in -- obviously still settled down. Whack. Out of the park. Jukich's home run was followed by a joyous celebration at home plate, because it gave Denfeld a 12-0 stranglehold on the game, and Jukich had a no-hitter.
The loud, clear voice from the stands came from Joan Jukich, Ben's grandma. She lives in Florida these days, to escape the winter cold, but she escapes the Florida heat by coming to Duluth for the summers, and she got here early enough to see a half-dozen of Ben's games.
When Ben Jukich was switched to right field with the big lead, to preserve his allowable innings for later in the tournament, Joan Jukich was disappointed at first. But as it turned out, Jukich came in fast for a nice running catch to help reliever Bryan Reese end the score-shortened five-inning game. Not often a pitcher gets to move to the outfield to preserve his own no-hitter.
It was chilly enough that Grandma Jukich wrapped herself in a blanket, and she sat almost alone. Next to her, on the first row of the bleachers, were Donna and Gordon Page, grandparents of Denfeld's sophomore Carlin Page, who live in the Twin Cities suburb of Plymouth and found it easy to get to Princeton for the tournament. They had a good time -- a great time, compared to how painful it was to witness Denfeld's first game thrashing. Joan Jukich said she'd rather not be in the paper herself, but she was just being modest. Besides, her support is important, just in case Ben loses his focus and throws a pitch too high during one of his no-hitters. You know how it is -- kids always do what their grandparents tell them.
John Gilbert is a sports writer for the
Up North Newspaper Network. He can be reached by e-mail at john.gilbert@mx3.com .

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