COOK — The North Woods baseball team had their first banner season in 2021 with the Grizzlies finishing the season as Section 7A runners-up.
The Grizzlies finished with a record of 14-11, but after suffering an early playoff loss, they kept their season alive in the double-elimination section tournament, knocking out Carlton, Nashwauk-Keewatin, Cherry and Silver Bay on their way to the section finals.
Graduating six seniors from that stellar lineup, the Grizzlies will need to do some serious rebuilding if they hope to be in the mix by the end of the season.
Losing Cole Theil, Chris Chaulklin, Zach Cheney, Andrew Zika, Ty Leinonen and Austin Sokoloski to graduation, fifth-year head coach Jeff Smerud says the returning players he does have this year will need to help out the inexperienced players behind them.
“We’ll be a younger, inexperienced team this year due to losing six starting seniors from last year’s team that reached the section finals for the first time in school history,” Smerud said. “Replacing that many key starters will be the challenge at the beginning of the year.”
Ben Kruse, Jake Panichi and Loui Panichi all return with playoff experience from the year before.
“They’ll have to help develop a young group of players. All three pitched at the varsity level last year so we should have decent pitching.”
Like many other teams, the Grizzlies have been limited in how much they’ve been able to get outdoors this season. As was a concern the year before, Smerud says getting outside so they can find the right lineup is paramount for this year’s team.
“We are just trying to find the right position and rotation for the line up this year. We have talent at our younger ages but getting them up to varsity level competition this year will take some time. We talk in practice that it is not where you start, but how you finish.”
Smerud expects Cherry, Ely and South Ridge to be 7A contenders this year and hopes his team can make a postseason push with the right amount of game knowledge and practice.
“We have to start with the basics and learn the game of baseball and progress as the season goes along. Hopefully we’ll find the right pieces at the right time to make a push into the playoffs.”