A year ago was glorious
May 22, 2020
In talking with a co-worker on Tuesday, we were hashing about ideas for this column. He suggested I go back a year and write about what happened then.
A year ago on Memorial Day weekend, the Section 7AAA girls softball tournament entered the double elimination round at Braun Park in Cloquet. The four favorites in the tournament were Cloquet, Hermantown, North Branch and Chisago Lakes with a dark horse in Grand Rapids. Eight teams merged to play in the double-elimination portion of the tournament. At the end of play that Saturday there would be only four teams remaining.
Cloquet opened play earlier that week by narrowly defeating Hibbing. Considering Cloquet was the No. 1 seed and Hibbing the No. 8 seed, the 'Jacks were given a wake up call that nothing would be easy. That served them well as the tournament progressed.
The weather on Memorial Day weekend was perfect a year ago. Temperatures soared and the skies were bright blue. Cloquet opened with an 11-2 win over North Branch, a team that took second place at state a year before. Undefeated Cloquet and Chisago Lakes moved on to the final four the following Tuesday while Grand Rapids and Hermantown faced off in the losers bracket.
On Tuesday, the 'Jacks drove to Lindstrom to face off against the Wildcats.
In the end the Lumberjacks managed to score three late runs and rally for a 3-1 win. Grand Rapids upset Hermantown and then Chisago Lakes knocked off the Thunderhawks, giving Cloquet and Chisago Lakes the final two slots in the sectional bracket in Lindstrom two days later.
As an assistant coach for Cloquet, I recall riding the bus home after beating Chisago Lakes. Unlike other seasons, I could tell the team had a different focus. While they were certainly happy they had won, you could hear players talking back and forth about how this means nothing until we win the tournament. There was another layer to their focus that we coaches had not seen before and you could sense something special was about to happen.
Thursday morning the team boarded the bus and headed back south for the final.
On a hot and humid day the Wildcats managed to force a second game by beating Cloquet 2-0 in the opener. Not only did they force a game two, but Cloquet had trouble putting their bat on the ball and the momentum had clearly shifted towards the Wildcats.
Eventually the second game came down to Cloquet having a pinch runner, Brea Rasmussen, on third base with nobody out, and Brenna McCleary on second base. Our No. 9 hitter, senior slapper Shelby Peil, got down in the count but managed to hit a roller between the pitcher and third base. By the time the ball got to the catcher at home, Rasmussen had slid hard and the ball rolled away harmlessly, giving Cloquet softball its third section championship and a berth in the state tournament.
That same day Esko and South Ridge had also earned state berths, a first for the Panthers.
There was not much time to celebrate and, after a whirlwind few days at home getting things ready, we headed to the state tournament in North Mankato. An opening 10-0 win over Benilde-St. Margaret - the only returning team to the state tournament - sent notice that this was a good Cloquet club. Lucy Sinkkonen pitched well and the team jumped all over the Red Knights. Dana Jones, who would set a state record for most hits in a tournament, started things off with a bunt base hit and then it was off to the races as our team played fantastically.
We then entered the semifinals against the top seed Mankato West. They had lost only one game all season. Twice we gained a lead and twice they came back to tie the game. Then in the fifth inning we had bases loaded and no one out and could not score a run. Mankato West came out and made us pay by ending the game after six innings. It was a tough loss. As we headed back to the hotel the bus was silent.
We held a team pizza party and chatted about the fact that the next day there was one last chance to be on the field together and how it would be great if we walked off with a third-place trophy. Coach Ron Tondryk's words were not lost on the kids as they bounced back, ripping Becker 11-1 to get the hardware.
Words can't describe the feeling of watching those kids get their trophy and medals. In the end it was fun just to sit back and watch the smiles of the kids and their parents.
What really is tough is knowing that not only was that the last game for the seniors, but it was also the last game the juniors would play. Due to COVID-19, both of those classes will look back at the 2019 season as their last, but at least they have memories of walking off the field as winners and with a state trophy.
WKLK radio personality Kerry Rodd writes sports for the Pine Knot News.