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State prep baseball tourney preview: Cloquet seniors ready for challenge

Mason Brenner attended Cloquet's previous state baseball tournament appearance in 2010, when he was a seventh-grader. "I remember watching them," Brenner said. "I always thought about playing in the state baseball tournament." Today, Brenner will...

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Cloquet senior pitcher Mason Brenner brings a 3-0 record and 2.63 ERA into the state tournament. (Photo by Dave Harwig)

Mason Brenner attended Cloquet’s previous state baseball tournament appearance in 2010, when he was a seventh-grader.
“I remember watching them,” Brenner said. “I always thought about playing in the state baseball tournament.”
Today, Brenner will get that chance when Cloquet (16-4) plays defending state champion St. Cloud Cathedral (22-0) in a Minnesota Class AA quarterfinal at 10 a.m. at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud.
It’s been quite a run of athletes at Cloquet, and Brenner and fellow senior Nate Weets are perfect examples. There’s no specializing here. The two have competed in seven section finals, winning four and advancing to the state tournament twice in football, once in basketball and now baseball.
“It’s always fun going to state,” Brenner said. “It’s the greatest feeling ever. And to do it in three different sports, it’s kind of what every high school athlete dreams of doing. Nate and I have been lucky enough to accomplish that.”
Five of the Lumberjacks’ six seniors are multisport athletes, and the strength of the team is its senior pitching in Brenner, Weets, Brandon Conklin, Gavin Takkunen and Hunter Roberts. Chase Keye rounds out the class.
The Lumberjacks have a team ERA of 2.27, while averaging more than a strikeout per inning. With that kind of quality and depth, Cloquet coach Rick Norrgard was still debating who to start against the Crusaders, and he will not hesitate to plug somebody else in if the situation calls for it.
“Any of them could be No. 1 on a given day,” Norrgard said Tuesday night. “This is the most depth we’ve ever had on the mound.  We have the luxury if things don’t start really well, we can always make a move. So we truthfully don’t know who we’re starting yet.”
Norrgard also feels the Lumberjacks are playoff hardened.
“All that big-game experience, no matter what the sport, is certainly something to draw from,” he said.
Brenner, the son of former Cloquet boys basketball coach and current assistant Tom Brenner, was a starting linebacker for a team that went 10-1 last fall and advanced to the Class AAAA tournament for the second straight year. Weets was the quarterback, throwing for more than 1,000 yards.
Mason Brenner was a shooting guard for a basketball team that went 18-10 one year after making the Class AAA tournament. Weets was the point guard, averaging 20 points per game while leading the team in assists. Weets will room with Barnum standout Brandon Newman as members of the St. Scholastica men’s basketball team this fall.
When they’re not pitching in baseball, Brenner plays third base and Weets plays shortstop.
“I can’t ask for a better way to go out, except for maybe winning a state championship,” Weets said. “It’s pretty special. We’re going against the defending state champs, but anything can happen in baseball. We’ll see what we got. I think our experience will help. When I was younger, I was more nervous than excited. Now, I’m more excited than nervous. I really don’t have any nerves going into it. I’m just excited to play and take advantage of every moment we have. We get to do something that most seniors don’t get to do.”
Weets sounds like that proverbial star athlete you remember from high school: the QB, the point guard, the shortstop. Brenner said Weets could excel at hockey if he gave it a shot. Or badminton. Or hopscotch. Or lawn darts. Or …
“Nate is that guy,” Brenner said. “He was named Cloquet’s boys athlete of the year, and has always been a phenomenal athlete growing up. He has always been good at anything he does.”
Cloquet has won five straight and 12 of its last 13 games, often in convincing fashion.
The one thing this senior group is lacking is a state tournament victory, going 0-2 in football and 0-1 in basketball.
Unlike football and basketball, the state baseball tournament has a consolation bracket, meaning the Lumberjacks are guaranteed at least two games, but Brenner will have no part of it.
“Consolation really doesn’t matter to me; I want to win it all,” said Brenner, who will attend Minnesota Duluth in the fall and major in pre-business. “I’ve known these guys most of my life. It’s bittersweet, but I’m glad I get to end it with them. They’re great players and some of my best friends, and nothing would be better than going out with a state title. I think we can do it if we play Cloquet baseball.”

More state baseball coverage: Deer River heads back to state tournament

Related Topics: BASEBALL
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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