Floodwood, Hermantown carry Northern hopes

John Gilbert

The significance maybe hasn’t fully hit yet, but when the Floodwood baseball team ran out onto the Hermantown field to hold high the Section 7A baseball championship trophy, it was the first time any Floodwood High School sports team had ever been qualified to hold up a Section championship trophy. In any sport, and year.

   It wasn’t that unique for Hermantown, which was playing up in Hibbing and won the 7AA title. The Hawks have been to the state tournament before, in baseball, softball, and hockey, at least. Not that the Hawks are a traditional favorite, but they are a traditional contender, year in and year out.

Floodwood players held up the school’s first-ever Section trophy to become the first Floodwood team to reach any state tournament. -John Gilbert photo
Floodwood players held up the school’s first-ever Section trophy to become the first Floodwood team to reach any state tournament. -John Gilbert photo



   Those two are our two Northland hopes for this week’s state baseball tournaments, and if you don’t see The Reader until late Thursday night, their opening games will be in the record books. At 20-2, Hermantown was seeded No. 4 and was to face Kasson-Mantorville (23-2) in a Class AA quarterfinal at Dick Putz Field in St. Cloud. Floodwood (17-2) takes on No. 2 seed New York Mills (19-2) at Jordan in the Class A tournament quarterfinals. Both deserve all the support we can muster, because if they happen to win their first two games, they will end up at Target Field in Minneapolis on Monday, where all the tournament classes will convene for their championship games.


FLOODWOOD CINDERELLA

   Like all Northern teams, Floodwood suffered with the late-arriving spring. They went south to find games, and they played an early game against Esko, beating the Eskomos 3-2. Another team was supposed to play Esko after that game, but didn’t show, so Floodwood coach Adam Johnson agreed to play Esko again, and the Polar Bears lost 10-6 in eight innings. Moose Lake-Willow River also beat Floodwood, in a 7-6 battle. That made Floodwood 1-2, but since then, the Polar Bears didn’t lose.

Riley Bernsdorf fired a strike in his 3-0 shutout of Carlton.  -John Gilbert photo
Riley Bernsdorf fired a strike in his 3-0 shutout of Carlton. -John Gilbert photo



   When they beat Chisholm, and then Carlton, to win the first section title in school history, it also was the 16th consecutive victory for Floodwood. Could this be the best group of athletes Floodwood has ever assembled on one team? Johnson wouldn’t even consider answering that, so focused is he on the one-game-at-a-time approach.

   “In my first meeting with the team when I started as head coach in 2010, I knew the team had only won five games the previous year, and expectations were not very high,” said Johnson, who played for the Polar Bears on a couple of Polar League championship teams. “I told the players that we were going to work on fundamentals and keeping things simple: pitchers throw strikes, defense make all the routine plays, and everybody hits what they can.”

Brothers Riley, left, a sophomore, and Trevor, right, a senior, are Floodwood’s 1-2 pitching punch.    -John Gilbert photo
Brothers Riley, left, a sophomore, and Trevor, right, a senior, are Floodwood’s 1-2 pitching punch. -John Gilbert photo



   That year, four years ago, Johnson already had a couple of underclassmen who were hardened veterans. Brothers Trevor and Riley Bernsdorf were on Johnson’s first team -- Trevor as a ninth grader and Riley as a seventh grader. When you are in a town with a population just over 500 and a high school enrollment that only tops 90 if you count ninth-graders, you start ‘em young.

   “Riley was our starting catcher when he was a seventh grader,” Johnson said. “I’d tell teams we were really young, and that our catcher was a seventh grader, but he threw out 70 percent of all the attempted steals he faced that year.”

Floodwood's Trevor Bernsdorf appeared to be out at first...
Floodwood's Trevor Bernsdorf appeared to be out at first...



    Trevor Bernsdorf was an outstanding shortstop who could also pitch, and Johnson soon learned that Riley Bernsdorf’s live arm worked well off the mound, too. Those two are stalwarts on this championship team. Trevor pitched a 5-hitter and Riley caught when Floodwood beat Chisholm 8-2 to reach the 7A final. It boosted his pitching record to 5-0. In the 7A final, Riley pitched a  2-hitter and is now 6-1, while Trevor played shortstop.

...but Bernsdorf was called safe...
...but Bernsdorf was called safe...


   Together, Trevor and Riley look more like twins than brothers who are two years apart. Ask them which is the better pitcher, and both will try to convince you that his brother is. “I throw a fastball, and a slider and a split-finger,” said Trevor. Riley said: “I throw a fastball and a curve.” He admitted, though, that he only threw about four curves against Carlton in the final, because his fastball was popping. The two brothers admit they never assumed anything, but both have dreamed about what it would be like to win the sectional and get a chance to go to the state tournament.

Sharp-eyed umpire spotted Carlton's first baseman pulled off the bag.
Sharp-eyed umpire spotted Carlton's first baseman pulled off the bag.



   There are another couple of brothers on the team -- Jarred and Tanner Heggedahl. Jarred Heggedahl, Trevor Bernsdorf, Justin Hall, Logan Maly, and Ross Schiminski are the five seniors on the team, and they are almost modular pieces in the Floodwood team, adjusting to play multiple positions whenever needed. Tanner Heggedahl, for example, moved from second base to catcher when Riley Bernsdorf went from catcher to pitcher. Hall is outstanding in center field, but he can move into the infield, or pitch, and Schiminski pitches a little two, but is a fixture at first base.

   As a collective, the Floodwood players live up to coach Johnson’s philosophy from four years ago. They pitch extremely well, they play solid defense -- making the routine plays and occasionally the spectacular ones -- and they swing the bats. From seventh grade to 12th, the Polar Bears aren’t likely to be caught looking at any called third strikes.

   Hermantown, meanwhile, might be accused of going to the state tournament year after year, but it’s misleading, because coach Tom Bang’s softball team, and Bruce Plante’s hockey team seem to make sure that Hermantown gets to state every year. Coach Mike Zagalmeyer, who took over the baseball coaching job from Plante, recalls the pain of losing to Proctor the last two seasons, and to Cloquet the year before that. So this is a return to prominence by the Hawks, who may not have the standout individuals of recent teams, but have solid teamwork and very good pitching from Kevin Folman, who will attend North Dakota State, and Kevin Stocke, who will go to UMD.

   The Hawks use the same formula as Floodwood. Fundamentally sound, good pitching, defense, and hit whatever the guy has got.

STANLEY CUP CLASSIC

 The Chicago Blackhawks took out defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles four games to one, right after the Boston Bruins stunned heavily favored Pittsburgh in four straight games. The story of that series was Boston goaltender Tukka Rask, because the Bruins have a hard-working team with none of the superstars who were supposed to lead Pittsburgh to the finals. How good was Rask? Pittsburgh came in averaging 4.27 goals per game, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Rask allowed them two goals (count ‘em, 2) in four games, recording shutouts in Game 1 and Game 4. Crosby and Malkin were shut out. Nothing.

   That makes it interesting against Chicago, because the Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane as standouts, and when coach Joel Quenneville put them together on the top line, Kane came to life, including a hat trick in the deciding seventh game, when he got his third goal on a brilliant one-timer after Toews passed it across the slot in the second overtime.

   I like Chicago to win the series, which started Wednesday night in Chicago, because the Blackhawks can play it gritty or sweet, and Toews can be the best player in the arena even if he never scores a goal in the finals. But the faceless Bruins seem to specialize in shutting down star players, and Rask is on an unbelievable hot streak in goal.


BASKETBALL TOO

    You’ve got to love the NBA finals, where the invincible Miami Heat are proving to be, well...vincible. San Antonio stole Game 1 in Miami in a 92-88 thriller, before LeBron James and the Heat woke up for a 30-5 run that overlapped into the fourth quarter and erased a Spurs lead to square the series 1-1.

    But in the NBA, the finals go from two games at one site to three at the other, so they went to San Antonio where the unheralded and underrated Spurs were battling along with them until Gary Neal and Danny Green started raining in a flurry of 3-pointers. Neal scored 24, and Green came off the bench to score 27 in one of those zoned-in performances. San Antonio set an NBA record with 16 buckets on 3-pointers, and buried the Heat 113-77 in Game 3.

   LeBron James, who seems to get anointed as the league’s top player almost every day, seemed disinterested once the Spurs started making 3s. To be a superstar, a guy has to find a way to get involved.