COLUMN: In the Front row

by Tom Coombe

Ely’s high school baseball team got no favors when the Minnesota State High School League realigned teams for the 2004 season.<BR><BR>With eight starters back, including standout pitchers Josh Weckman and Tim Scott, the Timberwolves had every reason to believe they’d contend for the Section 7A crown this spring.<BR><BR>But once the season rolled around there was just one problem: Ely was no longer in 7A.<BR><BR>Instead of being lumped in with the area’s smallest schools, and local rivals such as Nashwauk-Keewatin, Cherry and Babbitt-Embarrass-Soudan-Tower, the Wolves found themselves in the middle enrollment division in the state’s three-class system for high school baseball.<BR><BR>Ely was bumped up to Class AA, joining some of the area’s heaviest baseball hitters - Esko and Hermantown to name two - and some schools with enrollment twice as large - Proctor, Virginia and Mora to name three.<BR><BR>That made the Wolves’ quest for the school’s first state tournament berth since 2000 all the more difficult, as they found out Thursday when Esko bounced the Wolves from the 7AA tournament with a dramatic 2-1 win.<BR><BR>But the fact that Ely didn’t make 7AA’s double-elimination round shouldn’t diminish the accomplishments of this Timberwolves squad.<BR><BR>Ely dominated the Arrowhead Conference, winning the league with a perfect 7-0 mark and beating all three area ‘A’ teams still alive - Cherry, Nashwauk-Keewatin and BEST.<BR><BR>Head Coach Frank Ivancich also upgraded his team’s schedule to coincide with the move to AA, dropping small-school opponents such as AlBrook and Littlefork-Big Falls in favor of the Proctors and the Greenways of 7AA.<BR><BR>The results were impressive nonetheless, including a 15-4 regular season record.<BR><BR>“I think no matter what we did in the playoffs, that regular season record is quite an accomplishment,” said Ivancich. “These guys have a lot to be proud of.”<BR><BR>And nothing to be ashamed of.<BR><BR>One can make a good argument that 7AA, with four teams that cracked the division’s state top-10 (Esko, Virginia, Hermantown, Ely) and another that moved down a class (Mora) after reaching the 7AAA finals a year ago, is one of the deepest AA sections in the state.<BR><BR>And Ely, with an enrollment of just over 200 students in grades 10-12, found itself as one of the state’s smallest AA schools, competing against some schools with enrollments around the 500 mark.<BR><BR>“I think most of the Class A teams around here are happy we were moved up a class,” said Ivancich.<BR><BR>Success in high school baseball isn’t just measured by state tournament appearances.<BR><BR>The way state officials divide the schools and align the sections often is the most important factor in determining who plays until mid-June and who starts their summer baseball season on time.<BR><BR>The Wolves won’t play in St. Cloud, home of the AA tournament, next week. But they can rest assured that they were one of northeastern Minnesota’s top teams in 2004.<BR><BR>• Sartell’s high school baseball team, coached by Elyite Jerome Nemanich, clinched a share of the Central Lakes Conference championship and is 19-6 this season.<BR><BR>The Sabres had a top seed in the Section 8AAA playoffs and were set to play for their subsection championship over the weekend.<BR><BR>Sartell’s American Legion baseball team will be here June 25-27 for the Ely Legion Classic.<BR><BR>• Elyite Bill Planton is back home after his junior season on the pitching staff at Luther College of Iowa. Planton, who transferred to Luther after two seasons at Vermilion Community College, had three starts on the mound and finished 0-1.<BR><BR>Luther went 26-13 and its roster also included former VCC second baseman Neil Theisen and former Ely amateur player Jon Jaeger.<BR><BR>• Lucas Stellmach, a Tower-Soudan graduate who helped BEST to the state baseball tournament in 2002 and was part of five Ely Legion teams, made the all-state tournament team as a first baseman for Itasca Community College.<BR><BR>• Itasca will have a Tower-Soudan connection next fall with the return of Stellmach and the signing of three other Golden Eagles, football recruits Justin Bjorgo and Jason Semo, and basketball recruit Josh Quick.<BR><BR>• Ric Garni, a 1991 Ely graduate and former Echo sports reporter, is now the sports director at WBTW-TV, the CBS affiliate for the South Carolina communities of Myrtle Beach and Florence.<BR><BR>Garni serves as the weekday sports anchor and manages coverage of local sports.<BR><BR>“We are fortunate to have someone with Ric’s knowledge, skills and enthusiasm leading our award winning sports team,” said Gina Katzmark, WBTW News Director.  “He has done a fantastic job covering events like Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston and the NASCAR races in Darlington.<BR><BR>Garni graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Georgia and has worked at several TV stations in the South.<BR><BR>• Ronald Hearns, a former basketball star at Vermilion Community College and the son of boxing legend Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns, is following in his father’s footsteps and has joined the professional fight game.<BR><BR>Hearns scored a first-round knockout in his debut last month in Detroit.<BR><BR>After leading Vermilion to a national runner-up finish in 1999 and earning All-American status in basketball, Hearns moved on to the NCAA Division I level and played at American University.<BR><BR>He had 10 amateur fights and is now campaigning in the middleweight division as a pro.<BR><BR>Thomas Hearns won world championships in five different weight divisions, from welterweight to light heavyweight, and fought the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Virgil Hill during a 20-year career.