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Boys baseball players head South

When Duluth East baseball players arrived back in town last weekend, no one could have blamed them if they had turned around and headed back to Florida.

When Duluth East baseball players arrived back in town last weekend, no one could have blamed them if they had turned around and headed back to Florida.

After a week of mostly sunny, 80-degree days in Orlando, returning to the ravages of a mid-April blizzard was more than a little disheartening.

"Having been in Florida, we don't want to go back in the gym [for practice]," East coach John Rudolph said earlier this week as the team practiced outdoors at Ordean Field.

Conversely, Grand Rapids stayed home during spring break. The Thunderhawks' planned trip to Tampa, Fla., fell through when a sponsor backed out.

Whether spending a week outdoors in beautiful sunshine or spending it inside a gym makes a difference at playoff time is debatable, but both sides agree to the benefits of traveling south.

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"If we can get down there and get games in against live competition, it helps with experience," East left fielder Mike Castle said. "It jump-starts our season."

Grand Rapids coach Bill Kinnunen, whose teams, on average, travel to Florida once every three years, agrees.

"It's a huge advantage for a team," he said. "It makes a big difference playing on dirt and grass and under a blue sky."

Rudolph said spending a week at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex will help his team in a number of ways, chief among them increasing team unity and giving young players experience. His players concur.

"It was definitely beneficial to see live pitching, get outside and loosen up our arms," center fielder Matt Kilpo said.

Castle and Kilpo are among the five seniors East returns from its Section 7AAA championship team, which, along with a solid junior class that's led by infielders Skyler Murray and Jon Tisak and pitcher Adam Zwak, puts the Greyhounds in contention again. Of the four northern teams that remain in the section -- Cloquet, Hermantown and Hibbing moved down a class -- Grand Rapids is their main competition. Duluth Central graduated most of its starting lineup and Duluth Denfeld is coming off a four-win season. Forest Lake could be the class of the southern teams.

The Thunderhawks return nine seniors and have lots of pitching depth, including nine players from an American Legion team that reached the state tournament. One of those hurlers, senior Gabe Wood, is the owner of a 91 mph fastball and has been offered a scholarship by Minnesota State-Mankato.

"We should be solid; we've got a good group of guys coming in," Wood said. "It should be a really good year. Everyone's goal is to make a trip to state."

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East and Grand Rapids were supposed to play Tuesday for early season supremacy, but wet fields postponed the game until a later date.

"It was a little bit disappointing," Kilpo said. "We felt like we had an advantage coming in. Having that game [postponed] was a bummer."

The teams could meet in a restructured Section 7AAA tournament. Under a new format, teams will be seeded for the playoffs on a points basis, and then eight of the 12 schools will play single-elimination in the first round before going to double-elimination in the Elite Eight.

* Superior hopes 11 seniors can lift it above the .500 mark this season and contend for the Lake Superior Conference title. Pitcher Mike Swanson was dominant in a 6-0 win over Central at the Metrodome two weeks ago.

* A new Section 7AA champion will be crowned. Last year's winner, Hinckley-Finlayson, moved to 5A. But the section should be stronger with the addition of Cloquet, Hermantown and Hibbing to go along with traditional powers Esko and Virginia and last season's surprise finalist, Duluth Marshall.

* BEST lost key players off its Section 7 title team, but probably will be in the playoff mix with other yearly contenders Nashwauk-Keewatin, Chisholm, Silver Bay and Mountain Iron-Buhl.

RICK WEEGMAN covers prep baseball for the News Tribune. He can be reached at (218) 723-5302, (800) 456-8181 or by e-mail at rweegman@duluthnews.com .

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