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All-Area Baseball Player of the Year: Thunderhawks' Keske has 'devastating' speed

The senior took up powerlifting in the offseason in the hopes of getting stronger and faster, eventually finishing 14th in his weight class at a national competition in March.

Baseball player in orange and black uniform
Grand Rapids’ Ben Keske is the News Tribune All-Area Baseball Player of the Year and poses for a portrait at Ordean Field on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — During the first inning of an American Legion baseball game June 28 at Duluth East High School Grand Rapids’ Ben Keske chased down a well-hit fly ball in center field for the third out.

“Keske’s showing off that Mike Trout speed again,” teammate Andy Linder said as the team returned to the dugout.

Keske had a laugh about a comment that straddles the line between praise and some gentle ribbing, but here’s the thing: by the numbers Keske is faster than the three-time American League MVP.

Trout runs the 60-yard dash — the distance from home plate to second base, but without a turn — in 6.5 seconds. Keske’s time is a tenth of a second faster than the Los Angeles Angels star.

“Ben’s biggest attribute is his speed, he runs like a deer,” Thunderhawks coach Bill Kinnunen said. “He’s so fast, he can change a game with his speed and that’s what makes him a difference maker.”

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In the leadoff spot for Grand Rapids, Keske batted .429 with 32 runs scored and 29 stolen bases. What’s more, “unbelievable range” allowed him to run down fly balls in the gaps that would have been “sure doubles,” according to Kinnunen.

The Thunderhawks advanced to the state tournament for the second straight season, topping Mahtomed in the quarterfinal before bowing out against Benilde-St. Margaret’s the next day.

Half of this year's selections will return for at least one more season in 2023.

Keske was a Class AAA All-State First Team selection and now he is the 2022 News Tribune all-Area Player of the Year.

While Kinnunen thinks speed is the biggest part of the game, at least one opposing coach thinks his work at the plate is the key.

“His ultimate weapon isn’t just that he is a world-class speedster for high school baseball, he’s absolutely put together as an all-around hitter,” Duluth Denfeld coach Joe Wicklund said. “He’s almost like a professional hitter at the high school level — you just can’t get him out. It’s that skill at the plate that actually makes the speed part so devastating.”

Baseball player in orange and black uniform
Ben Keske of Grand Rapids catches a fly ball during an American Legion game at Ordean Field on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in Duluth. Keske is the DNT All-Area Baseball Player of the Year.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Keske said he first started playing when his parents — Ronald and Brenda Keske — signed him up for T-ball when he was young and it wasn’t long before their son was hooked.

“I think the biggest thing at the start was just being around your friends, you always have great memories with them,” Keske said. “Then the game is just so fun, I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something about it. I love going to practices and stuff and having something to do every day. I just fell in love with it.”

Ronald said Keske took to the game right away and his son practiced religiously every day, playing catch, taking swings and working on his fundamentals.

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In the winter, the family set up a net in their basement so he could continue taking swings and they had a bucket he would practice throwing into from across the room.

Baseball player in orange and black uniform
Ben Keske of Grand Rapids runs the bases during an American Legion game at Ordean Field on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in Duluth. Keske is the DNT All-Area Baseball Player of the Year.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“Finally, we got sick of hearing a thump, thump, thump and I got smart and I put a pillow in the dang thing,” Ronald said.

He also started lifting weights as an eighth-grader and began to focus on his nutrition to supplement the natural speed he knew he had.

“I’ve always had speed, but I’ve definitely worked on it,” Keske said. “I do a lot of leg workouts and I think that’s helped with my speed and quickness — your speed on the base paths starts with getting a good jump to steal a base. I’ve definitely been working on that a lot too.”

Keske said he started to realize he was getting pretty good in 2020, right when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the spring sports season. He played Legion and VFW baseball that summer.

‘Another goal to achieve’

After the 2021 season, Keske joined the Minnesota Blizzard travel baseball program and that helped him continue playing into the fall, but earlier in 2021 he found another way to train.

Keske had already been training in the weight room several times a week with his friend Max Bergman, but in the winter before last season the pair started to consider competing as powerlifters.

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“We wanted to see what the strongest kids our age could do,” Max said. “Then we were like ‘Geez, we’re pretty strong, we should take this more seriously. We entered a competition and that was pretty fun, then a year later we did another competition and Ben qualified for nationals.”

Ben Keske powerlifting.
Grand Rapids' Ben Keske gets set for a squat attempt at the USA Powerlifting national championships in March in Chicago. Keske, the News Tribune All-Area Baseball Player of the Year, started powerlifting in 2021 to help him get stronger and faster on the baseball diamond.
Submitted photo.

Powerlifting consists of three different lifts — squat, bench press and deadlift — and Keske qualified for the USA Powerlifting high school national competition where he finished 14th in his weight class.

“It helped me a lot, because I feel like I had another goal to achieve,” Keske said. “I can get stronger, have more mobility and get better at my game.

Kinnunen said the amount of work that Keske has put into his game showed up on the field this season.

“He spent hours in the weight room since he hit middle school and then he got interested in powerlifting and excelled at it,” Kinnunen said. “You can really tell with the strength and the burst he has when he runs that it makes a huge difference.”

Best is yet to come?

Baseball player in orange and black uniform
Grand Rapids’ Ben Keske is the DNT All-Area Baseball Player of the Year and poses for a portrait at Ordean Field on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Keske hopes to play NCAA Division I baseball someday, but for now the recent high school graduate is headed to Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge to play next year and study business.

Keske said Kinnunen and his Minnesota Blizzard coaches thought the best way to get there was to play at a junior or community college first. He toured three different junior colleges and one four-year school, but believes the facilities and coaching staff will allow him to keep working toward an offer at a Division I school.

“I felt like they had a better program and the coaches were really cool,” Keske said. “We get to play all winter — they have those facilities. I hope I can excel, get stronger, get better at my game and hopefully start my first year. We’ll see what happens, but I definitely want to play the second year and then hopefully I’ll get an offer from a university somewhere.”

It’s not just Kinnunen, his teammates, family and the Grand Rapids community that’s rooting for Keske. He’s made an impression on his opponents as well.

“I think Ben’s best baseball is still in front of him,” Wicklund said. “Do I think he’s a Division I player at this moment? No, otherwise he’d be there. I do think two years from now he’s going to continue to get better and better and he’s at a school that’s going to create those opportunities. He’s going to work hard enough at it, I have no doubt.”

More from Jamey Malcomb
The former Spartans star recently started as an assistant for the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks, a team he spent three seasons with as a player.

News Tribune Baseball Players of the Year

Year Player School

2022 Ben Keske Grand Rapids

2021 Ero Wallin Silver Bay

2020 No season (COVID-19 pandemic)

2019 Ben Pedersen Duluth Marshall

2018 Ben Pedersen Duluth Marshall

2017 Travis Carruth Hibbing

2016 John Aase Proctor

2015 Brandon Conklin Cloquet

2014 Jake Turner Duluth East

2013 Kevin Folman Hermantown

2012 Jake Lewis Proctor

Ben Nelson Proctor

2011 Mickie Keuning Duluth East

2010 John Skrbec Grand Rapids

2009 Skyler Murray Duluth East

2008 Gabe Wood Grand Rapids

2007 Dean Bauers Duluth Central

2006 Kiel Fechtelkotter Northwestern

2005 Jake Lambert Barnum

2004 Josh Mathson BEST

2003 Brandon Swartz Hermantown

2002 Ben Grams Duluth East

2001 Dan Mell Nashwauk-Keewatin

2000 Scott Hedlund Esko

1999 Kyle Tomaich Duluth Central

1998 Tom Berrisford Duluth East

1997 Eric Goerdt Cherry

1996 Jason Belich Duluth Denfeld

1995 Matt Pfingsten Duluth Central

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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