Prep baseball: Cloquet rallies to top Duluth Marshall in Section 7AA
In a wacky spring rife with scheduling quirks, Cloquet baseball coach Rick Norrgard admits it's been a challenge to get stingy pitcher Brandon Conklin into a routine. Rather than adhering to a strictly defined role, Norrgard simply calls on Conkl...
In a wacky spring rife with scheduling quirks, Cloquet baseball coach Rick Norrgard admits it’s been a challenge to get stingy pitcher Brandon Conklin into a routine. Rather than adhering to a strictly defined role, Norrgard simply calls on Conklin when big outs are needed, and the junior typically delivers.
The result has been a reduced workload for the right-hander, who has done the bulk of his damage as a reliever, often being summoned to close games out for the Lumberjacks. It’s been the best way for Norrgard to maximize his ace’s effectiveness.
Tuesday’s brilliant innings in Cloquet’s 7-6 eight-inning victory over Duluth Marshall in the Section 7AA winner’s bracket final at Hermantown’s Fichtner Field. Conklin allowed just one hit and struck out eight after replacing Gavin Takkunen in the second inning, and the Lumberjacks rallied from a 6-1 deficit to move within one win of reaching the Class AA high school state tournament.
At one point, Conklin retired 14 straight batters.
“I didn’t expect to go eight innings - I expected us to win it in seven,” he said. “But I battled through the eighth.”
Top-seeded Cloquet (13-5), which needed 11 innings to beat No. 8 Marshall in the teams’ regular-season meeting, scored four runs off Hilltoppers starter Jake Fugere in the fourth inning to forge a 6-6 tie. Takkunen drove in two with a double to right-center field and Conklin followed two batters later with a liner to center that drove in Takkunen. Just like that, Marshall’s early cushion had disappeared and the momentum switched dugouts.
“We knew the 6-1 lead didn’t mean much for two reasons - one was their offensive capability and the other was Brandon’s ability to stop us,” Hilltoppers coach Joe Wicklund said moments before his team took the field for an elimination game against Aitkin. Marshall (10-9) lost that game 1-0 and was knocked out of the double-elimination tournament.
Cloquet and Aitkin (20-4) will meet for the section title at 5 p.m. Thursday at Wade Stadium, with the Gobblers needing to win twice to keep the Lumberjacks from qualifying for their fourth state tournament.
With Conklin and Fugere trading zeroes after the fourth inning, the Lake Superior Conference foes looked poised to reprise their 11-inning marathon from May 21. But Fugere eventually left after tossing seven effective innings, and left-handed reliever Pierce Risdon allowed a pair of singles to start the bottom of the eighth. With the bases loaded and one out, Cloquet’s Dylan McIvor stepped to the plate with a simple game plan.
“You can’t try to do too much in that situation - just put the bat on the ball,” McIvor said. “Everybody wants to be in that situation.”
McIvor showed why when he lifted a sacrifice fly to right field to score Takkunen and send the Lumberjacks into the section finals - an especially improbable feat considering Cloquet committed five errors Tuesday. In fact, Marshall scored three third-inning runs off Conklin and all were unearned.
“I think that’s a product of the spring,” Norrgard said. “We’ve only had six or seven practices outside.”
Conklin wasn’t overly confident that Cloquet could dig out of such a menacing hole, not after the way the Lumberjacks started.
“I doubted us a little bit, actually,” he said. “We were flat and not ready to play, but we proved my theory wrong.”
Takkunen and Nate Weets each had three hits for the Lumberjacks, who have won five straight. Jon Hansen had two of the Hilltoppers’ three hits.
AITKIN 5, VIRGINIA 3
Jake Lynn’s sixth-inning single to right field drove in three runs as the Gobblers rallied past the Blue Devils in an elimination game.
AITKIN 1, DULUTH MARSHALL 0
The Hilltoppers’ dramatic postseason run came to a close against Jake Lynn and the Gobblers.
Lynn threw a complete-game shutout and Dan Bender had two hits for Aitkin.
Marshall started the playoffs by shocking top-seeded Hermantown before putting together two more upsets before Tuesday’s defeats. Peter Lenz was a tough-luck loser for the Hilltoppers, allowing four hits in six innings.