'What a run'
Sadness was tempered by hope for the future as the young Cloquet softball team fell to a powerful rival in the Section 7AAA finals.
After defeating North Branch, the second-ranked team in Minnesota, earlier in the tournament, the Vikings came back to defeat the Lumberjacks twice Friday, June 1, at Braun Park to earn a section championship and a trip to state.
Scores were 12-5 and 11-1.
"It was heartbreaking," coach Ron Tondryk said, "but we got beat by a good team twice. I think we surprised a few people when we beat them (North Branch) earlier, but we played a team that had something to prove."
The Vikings unseated perennial section power Hermantown in the losers bracket finals in a game delayed a day by rain to Thursday, May 31, the date of the original section title game. Cloquet got an extra day off, but also got to face a red-hot team that was in the mood for revenge.
"North Branch had a lot of seniors and something to prove," Tondryk said, "and they did."
Cloquet, like North Branch in the first meeting between the teams, jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead before the Vikings' offense kicked into gear.
"They closed to 4-3 on a call we thought was missed," Tondryk said, "but that opened the floodgates and the wheels came off for us."
Sam Pederson pitched a complete game for North Branch and went 3-for-4 with a home run to help her own cause at the plate. Olivia Diver and Ally Martin each had two hits for Cloquet.
That brought about a second, winner-take-all game, and Cloquet hung with North Branch for most of the contest.
"It was 3-1 after five innings but they just wore us out," Tondryk said. "That's what good teams do."
Pederson walked five for North Branch, but pitched another complete game. Keagan Anderson had an RBI double to drive in Cloquet's run.
And so, the playoff run is over — one step short of where everyone in purple wanted it to go.
"Our players did a great job this year just taking it (the game) seriously," Tondryk said. "They knew they could be a good team and played to that level. We played seven innings every game; we came back on teams and were patient. That's what we have to do."
The year will also serve as a confidence booster for the young Lumberjacks, who graduate only one senior from this year's team.
"The kids learned they can play with teams like North Branch," Tondryk said. "When you get into these pressure-filled games, that's great to know. Our players did a really nice job."
There's a lot to be proud of.
"We had an eighth-grader hit .588 in the playoffs, and that's super," he said. "We averaged over seven runs a game and our pitching was very strong. The kids battled all the way to the end. We knew these kids could play and at the end of the season, they knew it, too."
Tondryk said summer softball will be key to developing the players.
"We know there's competition for summer time with these kids," Tondryk said. "Some play hockey, some do other things, but we feel it's very important to play summer ball. If they don't play summer ball, we tell them to come back working harder next spring. We're a small school and we understand when players want to do other things."
But in the end, the playoff run will stay with Tondryk.
"What a run we had," he said. "I look forward to next year. Good things happened throughout our year. We just didn't complete it."