BLACKDUCK - No matter what happens today when Blackduck takes the field at 3 p.m. against BOLD in the opening round of the state Class A baseball tournament in Chaska, the players, the coaches and the fans will always refer to the 2012 season as one that put the school and the town on the map.
"Advancing to the state tournament has unified the town," said Jerry Sonnek who was the head football coach at Blackduck and was the school's athletic director for more than 30 years. "I know many people will be skipping work to go to the game. And if school was still in session it would be closed."
Blackduck has never appeared in a state high school baseball tournament. The Drakes did make the Class A football state playoffs in 1979, defeating Biwabik for the section crown but falling to Mahnomen in the state quarterfinals.
In wrestling Blackduck teamed with Cass Lake-Bena to gain the state meet in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. Except for those two programs, however, Blackduck has never been represented at a Minnesota high school athletic state tournament.
"Like any small town, Blackduck appreciates winners and this team makes us very proud," said Jim Ross who was the assistant football coach and head boys basketball coach from 1971 through 1999. "I can't make it to Chaska but if there was any way that I could have, I would. I truly wish I could be there."
When Blackduck defeated Red Lake County last week in the Section 8A championship series the Bemidji State University grandstand and sidelines were filled with Drakes fans. The players took notice and believe that the support of the community was instrumental in the section title run.
The fan support continued on the trip back to Blackduck following the section victory.
When the team bus reached Hines the players were greeted with a 45-vehicle escort which included fire engines and police cars. That escort led the Drakes into town and was the first of numerous community expressions of appreciation.
"I don't think you'll find anybody in Blackduck who isn't excited about the baseball team," said Tom Liapis, a current teacher and coach. "Last Thursday before the section games the school staff had a tailgate party. And we'll probably have another at the state tournament."
Liapis will be at Chaska in time for today's 3 p.m. first pitch. Among those planning to join him is Mark Johnson who is a retired teacher, girls basketball and volleyball coach at Blackduck.
"I never had a team make it to state," Johnson said. "In 1985 the volleyball team lost in the section final to McIntosh. In 1996 and1997 our baseball team lost in the first game of sections.
"Personally, I'm excited about the team making it to state but I'm even more excited for the kids," Johnson continued. "This is a group of great kids. They listen and, because of that, you can teach them."
"They are also very smart kids," Liapis said. "They are excellent in the classroom and that's an important quality for an athlete. Nothing has come easily for them and these kids had to learn how to win those close games against Red Lake County."
In the 2010-11 basketball season Blackduck was the state team academic champion and many of the players on that squad will be on the Chaska field today.
"It's always easier to coach smart kids," Ross said. "And these kids are smart."
Blackduck and BOLD both are 22-4 but, based on geography, the Drakes probably will be considered the underdog. Northern Minnesota is not considered a hotbed of high school baseball, as least when compared with central and southern Minnesota.
According to Drakes coach Dwight Kalvig, however, his players aren't buying into that philosophy.
"The kids feel very proud," Kalvig said. "They have a sense of what they have accomplished but they also have the attitude that there is more for them to do."
Regardless of what happens during the next few days, this group of baseball players can always say that they were the first to represent Blackduck at the state baseball tournament.
"These guys are part of a unique group and a very small fraternity," Liapis said. "This is a memory-making year and one that will be part of our conversation for years to come. And their class reunions just got better."
"My advice to the players is to take it all in," Sonnek said. "Enjoy every minute of it because this will be a lifetime memory."