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Ah, sectional baseball playoff time. One of the annual highlights to an always-short spring high school sports season, and it will finish Thursday night, with a break from the weather. But there already have been enough bits of drama to entertain anyone.
It’s a complicated formula, putting emphasis on pitching depth as well as endurance. Teams play in their respective sections and their respective size classes, until they get down to eliminating enough to wind up in double elimination. Then it gets tricky.
This week, the Duluth Huskies played a perfect set-up for Tuesday’s full day of action, somehow gathering over 3,000 young school kids at Wade Stadium for an 11:30 a.m. start against the St. Cloud Rox. The kids had a great time, even if several hundred of them were still trying to squirm through the gates as the game began. But it was a beautiful sight to see Wade Stadium, such as it is, filled with enthusiastic fans.
The weather didn’t cooperate, with steady rain pelting through the mist for the first couple of innings, although the kids in the stands didn’t seem to mind. Most of them were rounded up by their teachers and herded to their buses after the Huskies seemed to have things well in hand at 8-1. But St. Cloud rallied for five in the eighth and one more in the ninth, and what was left of a crowd of 3,342 saw a weird finish as the game went to the 10th inning, and the Huskies won 9-8 when an attempted sacrifice bunt was thrown up the right field line and allowed the winning run to score.
Meanwhile, on assorted diamonds throughout the Northland, the high school dramas were unfolding.
In Section 7, Class A, for the smallest schools, the last four standing met at Hermantown’s Fichtner Field for a 2 p.m. start. Marshall shouldn’t have minded, because it was on that field last Saturday when the Hilltoppers stunned a very good Cook County team by scoring four runs in the last of the seventh to win 8-7 and reach Tuesday’s elite company. But against Carlton, the Toppers seemed to prefer to take strikes rather than swing at them, and Zach Veno pitched a 1-hitter and struck out 11 as the Bulldogs prevailed 1-0.
Floodwood, with perhaps its best team ever, earned a shot at its first state tournament ever by whipping Chisholm 8-2 behind pitcher Trevor Bernsdorf, who scattered five hits, and survived an extremely tight strike zone to fan eight and walk seven. That sent unbeaten Floodwood into Thursday’s 7A final, while Chisholm had to stay on the field and take on Carlton. With Kyle Gunderson stopping Chisholm on six hits, Carlton roared to a 12-2 victory that eliminated Chisholm and sends Carlton up against Floodwood, with the unenviable task of beating the Polar Bears twice to get to state.
Up at Hibbing, the Class AA baseball teams were going at it, also on Tuesday afternoon. Hermantown got past a familiar rival, beating Cloquet 2-0 with two runs in the top of the seventh inning. That left the Hawks unbeaten and headed to Thursday’s final. International Falls needed extra time to get past Proctor 1-0 in 10 innings, but the work didn’t seem to bother the Broncos, who came bak to knock off Cloquet 7-4 in an elimination game and get a shot at Hermantown in Thursday’s finals.
Those Thursday games will probably be over before anyone gets to the Reader, but with Grand Rapids also winning in Class AAA, Section 7 appears to be well represented at the state tournament.
The large and small schools fought each other, some Twin Cities powerhouses, and a Saturday of rain last week in Section 7 track meets at Malosky Stadium, and a number of promising athletes will try to also come up with their best efforts in the state meet. Regardless of how they come out down there, the competition at the sectional level was, as usual, scintillating.
The biggest problem is that with diminishing enrollment, huge Twin Cities suburban powers like Forest Lake and Elk River bring their army-sized track teams up to Section 7 and pretty much dominate things. But teams like Esko, Cloquet, Hibbing, Grand Rapids and Duluth East give it their best shot. In 7AA, Forest Lake, Andover and Elk River were 1-2-3, with Denfeld fourth and Grand Rapids fifth in the boys competition. Forest Lake, Elk River, North Branch, St. Francis and Zimmerman were 1-5 in the girls competition, before Grand Rapids claimed sixth, East eighth and Hibbing ninth.
But the track meet is all about individual performances, and some key performers will represent Section 7.
SO MUCH FOR EXPERTS
On a drive to the Twin Cities last week, I happened to catch a satellite radio broadcast on the NHL network, with four young fellows in Toronto discussing the upcoming division finals. One boldly said that Pittsburgh was the best team by such a margin that Boston might win one game, or else it would be a sweep. The other three all agreed with him. Then he said in the West, obviously the Los Angeles Kings were clearly superior to the Chicago Blackhawks, so the Stanley Cup finals would be Pittsburgh beating the Kings. So much for that.
Then, they played the games. It did my heart good to see Boston, without a single player measuring up to the heights of Pittsburgh’s superstars, stymie the Penguins 3-0 in the first game, leaving Sidney Crosby reduced to throwing punches at 6-foot-9 Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara, while Evgeni Malkin did the same with Patrice Bergeron. Amazing. The best two players on each team duking it out for NHL tradition. In Game 2, in Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby flipped a careless backhand pass that sent Brad Marchand in for a breakaway goal at 0:28, and the Bruins jumped to a 4-1 lead in the first period. Boston blasted the Penguins 6-1, meaning the teams move into Boston with the Bruins up two games to none.
Similarly in the West, those alleged experts in Toronto and other eastern climes apparently didn’t notice that the Chicago Blackhawks had the best record in all of hockey for the abbreviated season when they extolled the Kings for winning last year’s Cup. But the Blackhawks did their work swiftly and efficiently to also sweep the first two from the Kings, 2-1 and 5-2, before moving to Los Angeles. The Kings simply don’t lose at home, and they were able to overturn the Hawks 3-1, with an empty-net goal, in Tuesday night’s Game 3. But the Blackhawks remain the favorite to reach the Cup final, it’s just that they may find Boston, and not Pittsburgh, awaiting them.