Growing up on the west side of Duluth, Marshall senior Derrick Winn spent a lot of time at Valley Youth Center - a neighborhood after-school and summer program for children ages 5 and up.
Winn said the Valley Youth Center was where he grew up, and there was one volunteer in particular - a student-athlete from Denfeld High School - who made a strong impression on Winn.
"One of my favorite volunteers of all time was C.J. Ham, actually," Winn said of the Minnesota Vikings fullback. "When I was 9 or 10, he was my age now. It was great to see someone from this part of the state go pro and follow his dream."
Winn and the Hilltoppers are chasing a dream of their own this week back at the Minnesota state baseball tournament for a second consecutive season. Marshall (21-4), as the top seed in Class AA, opens against host St. Cloud Cathedral (17-8) at 10 a.m. today at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud looking to reach the state semifinals in back-to-back seasons.
The Hilltoppers finished fourth a year ago and were denied their first appearance at Target Field in the state title game, losing a 1-0 pitching duel to Pierz in a semifinal that saw Winn strike out eight batters.
It's a game that has stuck with the the Hilltoppers, especially Winn.
"It really burned to lose 1-0 to a really good team," said Winn, who will study psychology and play baseball at NCAA Division II Angelo State in Texas next year. "We just need to get back and be on the other side of that."
Win or lose this morning, Winn is expected to be the starter for the Hilltoppers on Friday. The hope is its the noon semifinal game on Dick Putz Field rather than the 10 a.m. consolation game next door on Joe Faber Field.
Winn is 5-1 as a starter this season for the Hilltoppers with a 0.67 ERA. He's given up just five runs - three earned - over 31 1/3 innings with 32 strikeouts. He's earned two saves as well.
At the plate, he's batting .403 with a .533 on-base percentage and 22 RBIs.
But it's not just on the field where Winn has been - pardon the pun - winning at Marshall.
Winn was bestowed the Hilltopper Award this spring by the school. The honor goes to the senior that most aligns with the school's values and best represents the community.
Kevin Breen, Head of School at Marshall, said Winn exemplified that description and then some during his time as a Hilltopper. Everywhere you look, whether it was in the classroom, community or on the field, Winn was being a good teammate, Breen said.
"That's who he is fundamentally, he's selfless," Breen said. "He's just that rare commodity right now. It's team first in sports, but it's also team first anytime he's in a team circumstance."
Following in the footsteps of Ham, Winn is now a volunteer at Valley Youth Center. Some days he spends time with kids in the gym playing basketball, or he'll take them outside for recreation. On other days, he'll make food or help keep the place clean.
"That was my No. 1 hangout. From a young age, that was where I knew I wanted to help out the most that I could," Winn said. "It kept me in the right frame of mind to not do anything wrong or not to be negative. They helped me come up in life and I'm thankful for it."
Hilltoppers coach Joe Wicklund, who is also the school's director of enrollment, saw Winn's work at Valley Youth Center firsthand during a baseball camp Winn put on for kids who don't have access to the sport. It was Winn's senior project.
"That's a community that helped raise him," Wicklund said. "He's such a bright, shining example of what community can become when it's focused on one kid and what a kid can do with it when they want to give back. It's so incredibly easy to feel good about yourself when you spend time with Derrick Winn.
"He's such a kind human being and I think that kindness, to be honest, is in short supply in this world, and Derrick brings it in spades for everyone to experience."
Tight schedule to test bullpens
With the state championship games for all classes scheduled for Saturday instead of Monday this year at Target Field, bullpens will be put to the test this week as teams are forced to go at least three deep into their rotations to win a state title.
That begs the question. When do you throw your ace?
Wicklund said Marshall won't over think things and it will go with its ace, junior Ben Pedersen, right away against Cathedral.
The same goes for South Ridge coach Tyler Olin. His third-seeded Panthers (19-5) will turn to senior Nick Carlson and his 0.85 ERA against unseeded Rushford-Peterson (15-8) in a Class A quarterfinal at 5:30 p.m. today at Chaska Athletic Park.
"I'm very confident in Nick," said Olin, whose Panthers are at the state tournament for the first time in school history. "He's not only been our best guy throughout the year, he's a senior, our only senior. It just seems his athleticism always just carries him through any situation. He doesn't think much. His body just takes over and he does a good job."
Both South Ridge and Marshall played four games over three days to win their section titles, having to go through the loser's bracket. So the grind will be nothing new to them.
Grand Rapids (10-15), which opens the Class AAA tournament at 10 a.m. today against top-seeded Mahtomedi (16-4), never faced such a grind en route to the 7AAA title. Its final three games were spread out over four days.
Thunderhawks coach Bill Kinnunen said the section tournament was the exception to the rule, however. The nasty weather early in the spring created a compacted schedule late in the regular season that tested the depth of his bullpen, he said.
"We have a lot of faith in a lot of kids this year because with the weather, we had to have a deep staff," Kinnunen said.
Like his fellow Northland coaches, Kinnunen has his ace, junior Isaac Gustafson, slotted for today's quarterfinal and senior Ryan Barrett penciled in for Friday. It's a strategy he didn't have to think too hard about.
"You gotta win to move on to the next round," Kinnunen said. "So we're going to throw the best guy we have available and go from there."
STATE BASEBALL TOURNAMENT
• Grand Rapids (10-15) vs. Mahtomedi (18-4), 10 a.m., at Minneapolis
• St. Cloud Cathedral (17-8) vs. Duluth Marshall (21-4), 10 a.m., St. Cloud
• Rushford-Peterson (15-8) vs. No. 3 South Ridge (19-5), 5:30 p.m., Chaska (WKLK-FM 96.5)