GRAND RAPIDS — Ten games into the season, the Grand Rapids High School baseball team was sporting a losing record despite the fact that it was expected to compete for a section title this year.
While the losing record might have raised some eyebrows, Grand Rapids manager Bill Kinnunen and his team weren’t worried. While they knew they weren’t playing their best baseball against the tough competition they were playing, they had confidence they would turn things around.
And turn things around they indeed did.
The Thunderhawks fell to 4-6 on the season on May 8, after an ugly 7-6 loss to North Branch. But after that it has been lights out for Grand Rapids as it has won 12 out of its last 13 games including going unbeaten in the Section 7AAA Baseball Tournament.
The Thunderhawks completed the section tournament unbeaten as they topped Chisago Lakes 6-0 in the championship game Wednesday at Wade Stadium in Duluth. Sophomore Kyle Henke turned in a brilliant performance on the mound for Grand Rapids as he hurled a one-hitter.
It will be the 19th trip to the state tournament for the Grand Rapids High School team, with the program having won state championships in 1978 and 1984 under legendary coach Bob Streetar. The last trip to state was in 2018.
“You have to enjoy every time you go to the state tournament because you don’t know if it will ever happen again,” said Grand Rapids manager Bill Kinnunen. “We want to be at our best come playoff time; we have a pretty tough schedule at the start of the year because we want to find out what we need to work at to get better so we are ready for playoff time.”
Added pitcher Henke, “It feels great. Coach has been pushing us all season. I have been playing with this group for a long time and it is really nice to be able to get rewarded.”
Senior Kodi Miller was a freshman starter on the 2018 state tournament team and he tells teammates that the crowd may be a factor.
“I will tell them it is just another baseball game and all they have to focus on is the next pitch,” said Miller. “I try to keep the younger players under control, keep their heads in the game.
“It feels amazing and it is always fun to go to a state tournament and it is great to be able to play with a great group of guys.”
Said sophomore Myles Gunderson, “We worked unbelievably hard; we were at the field probably two to three hours a day of straight hard work. The coaches were always on us and we definitely earned this. I love our chances down there; if we can stay like we have been in the last half of the season, we are going to be a tough team.”
Gunderson is one of the top two pitchers on team and will see time on the mound at state if things go right. He said he is not nervous and that he just needs to take care of himself and play his best. He added that team chemistry may play a role for the Thunderhawks in the state tourney.
“Team chemistry is always important and when you don’t have that your team struggles because it is always negative. But when you have guys how we are, so connected, it is easy to get along and help each other,” Gunderson explained.
Miller has fought his way back from a serious elbow injury. He would have entered the season as the ace of the pitching staff save for the injury. He has worked back to the point where he will serve as the closer for the Thunderhawks in the state tournament.
“It feels amazing to be able to pitch again,” Miller said. “I might not be able to throw a whole lot, but it feels good to be able to come in and close at least. It would be a big dream of mine to be able to come into the championship game and finish it off.”
Kinnunen said as always, Grand Rapids wants to play good defense behind pitching that throws strikes.
“That’s how you win; it’s just a glorified game of catch,” said Kinnunen. “The pitcher is playing catch with the catcher, the infield’s has to pick it up and play catch with the first baseman, and whoever does that the best at the high school level seems to win the most games.
“It’s the same thing in the state tournament; whoever does that the best is going to win. It comes down to who can handle the pressure, who can shake off the mistakes and clear the mechanism and be ready for the next pitch, and the most successful team will do that the best.”
Kinnunen said that even though Grand Rapids is young with just four seniors on the team, the team should be able to handle the pressure of a state tournament just fine.
“I think we will be OK. The kids show up every day, play hard and compete, and we have a lot of two-and-three-sport athletes,” Kinnunen said. “You have to have that come playoff time. That’s why we like the kids who play sports year around because they have been through two section tournaments in most years. So a lot of kids have been through it already and they understand what it’s like.”
The seeding meeting was not conducted before the Herald-Review went to press, thus it is unknown what time or who the Thunderhawks will play. However, it is known they will play Tuesday.
“They usually seed the northern teams down and we will be one of the draws out of the hat,” Kinnunen said. “But they know about Grand Rapids baseball and that we are ready to play come playoff time. The coaches vote for the seven other teams – you can’t vote for yourself – and we will see what happens. But we expect to be one of the three teams drawn out of a hat all the time because we are way up north and they don't think we can play baseball up here.
“It doesn’t matter who you play because you are going to have to win three games no matter what. You are going to have to beat the best to win it so we would prefer to play the best team right off the bat to see how we stack up.”
With section tournaments still underway, Kinnunen said it is hard to gauge who will make it to the state tournament.
“Mankato West has been ranked No. 1 the second half of the season and they are one of the favorites but they got beat in the sections and they have to win twice to get past Marshall which also has been ranked up there all year. From there you don’t know because a lot of teams didn’t get to play a non-conference schedule due to COVID. You don’t know until you get down there and play them.
“If we show up and play one pitch at a time and just worry about doing our own job, we will be OK. But if we get caught up in the environment and the enormity of the situation, then it will be a quick trip.”
Added Henke, “I think we just have to keep doing what we are doing. We have been playing really good baseball in the latter part of the season. We have been playing really well defensively and the bats have been hot so we need to keep that going into the state tournament.”
Henke is a good bet to start the opening game of the state tournament and he said he will be nervous up until the first pitch.
“I had a little nerves going in the section championship game, so obviously there will be some nerves going into the state tournament game but I will try to zone in like I did in the section final.
“We get along really well together and everyone is really excited and we are pumped for Tuesday.”
DULUTH — The Grand Rapids team, riding the one-hit shutout pitching of sophomore Kyle Henke, defeated Chisago Lakes 6-0 on Wednesday to capture the program’s 19th section title.
“Kyle hit spots, changed speeds and left one a little over the plate or he would have had a no-hitter,” said Kinnunen. “It was an outstanding performance by the sophomore. He’s been tough all year, he throws strikes, he has outstanding mechanics and changes speeds and that’s what you need to do as a pitcher.
“He works quick so the defense has to stay on their toes so they are awake. When you are always around the strike zone, something can happen on any pitch so the defense has to be ready.”
Henke said he just tried to lock in and be in a zone with catcher Kodi Miller.
“You have to be able to hit your spots to be a competitive pitcher,” said Henke. “The Thunderhawks received the only runs they needed in the first inning on a two-run double by Kodi Miller. Then, four runs in the fourth inning iced the victory for Grand Rapids.