Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a series titled Lumberjack Flashback, highlighting some of the greatest spring sports teams, athletes and moments in Bemidji High School history.
For what felt like forever, the final fly ball of the 1973 baseball season hung high in the air.
“It was a pop-up towards left field,” recalled John Buckanaga, the catcher on that Bemidji High School baseball team. “It seemed like it was up in the air for 10 minutes. It was a real high pop-up. It was dark. And it just hung up there.”
When the ball finally did return to earth, senior Dave Drown was waiting for it. The ball met the leather with a pop, secure in the webbing of the mitt, and the Lumberjacks had a 3-1 win over Winona in the state championship game.
“It was unbelievable. Of course, any state championship team or player will tell you that,” said leadoff hitter Bob Johnson. “You want to win a state championship, and we knew we were good enough. But you still don’t know it’s going to happen.
“The older you get, the more you realize how seldom it happens. You really savor it now.”
BHS steamrolled into the single-class state tournament behind dominant showings in the region and district tournaments. Naturally, they faced their toughest competition at state, but old Midway Stadium in St. Paul witnessed an unprecedented and still unmatched accomplishment by Bemidji’s boys of summer.
Earl Sargent (8-2, 0.74 ERA) and Andy Kannenberg (11-1, 1.75 ERA) provided a lethal one-two punch atop the Bemidji rotation.
“Earl was just simply nasty. He had a great curveball and a really lively fastball,” the southpaw Kannenberg said. “In a way, having the lefty-righty combo and getting 10, 12, 13 strikeouts a game, I’m surprised the other guys on the team didn’t (complain) a little bit because there weren’t that many balls put into play.”
Third baseman Jim Conway said he didn’t get a lot of action in the hot corner, but he reveled in his teammates’ abilities.
“Playing behind Andy and Earl in particular, the only action I usually had at third was weak grounders because they were almost unhittable,” Conway said. “It was fun. Both of them would rack up 10, 12 strikeouts a game, it always seemed. Rarely would I see anything toasty at third base. They were that dominant.”
In the Region 29 Tournament, the Jacks waltzed through the field behind three straight shutouts. They then advanced to meet Crookston in the four-team Region 8 Tournament, where Sargent tossed a 17-strikeout no-hitter. But that wasn’t too surprising. It was Sargent’s second no-no of the postseason and the team’s third.
“Pitching wins games,” said Buckanaga, a standout backstop in his own right. “And our pitching was phenomenal back then.”
Kannenberg had the encore in the region title game, tossing a two-hitter with 13 strikeouts. Bemidji triumphed 14-0 over Halstad to capture its sixth straight state berth and the 13th in program history.
“We were pretty well tuned for (state), and we knew we had a very good team,” Conway said. “There was no stage fright or anything like that. It was more a determination, knowing with Andy and Earl throwing, we had a great chance.”
Trials and triumph
Perhaps those in the Glencoe dugout were the only ones surprised when Sargent did it again in the state opener. Seven innings, 13 strikeouts and zero hits later, Sargent blanked the Eagles and had the Jacks in the semifinals.
The senior also drove in the game’s only run, slicing a first-inning triple to left after Charlie Meyers worked himself into scoring position on a two-out double.
But in the semifinals, disaster struck.
“I was pitching and Earl was playing first base,” Kannenberg recalled. “I can’t remember if it was a bunt or a little chopper in front. I picked it up, and I threw low in the dirt to first. Earl stretched out, and the baserunner kneed him right in the thigh.”
Following the accidental collision, Sargent had to be helped off the field. The injury kept him from his scheduled start the next day.
“We’re all sitting there like, ‘Geez, our best guy,’” Kannenberg said. “We’re going to the championship game, and Earl can’t pitch.”
BHS held on for a 5-2 win over Park Center, but Sargent couldn’t loosen up during the state championship game warmups. Instead, head coach Chuck Grillo gave Kannenberg the starting nod for a second consecutive day.
The squad was visibly shaken at the news of Sargent’s benching, but that quickly turned into a war cry of “Let’s win it for Earl!”
The game plan went awry two batters in, when Winona’s Gary Ahrens slammed a ball to the wall for an inside-the-park home run and a 1-0 lead. Kannenberg settled down, though, allowing just three hits for the remainder of his repeat complete-game effort.
Johnson tied the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the third, scoring on an RBI single from Don Wackwitz. Buckanaga singled in Meyers during the sixth inning for the go-ahead run, and courtesy runner Randy Beck scored on Drown’s ensuing RBI single over the shortstop.
Winona manufactured two runners in the seventh, threatening with the tying run on the basepaths. But Bemidji made its last stand, and a fly ball that hung in the air forever finally landed -- along with the program’s first state championship.
“It was kind of like one of those ‘Field of Dreams’ hits. Up in the air, slow motion,” Buckanaga said. “Our left fielder grabbed it, and everybody could finally breathe. We finally accomplished what we had set out to do in the middle of March.”
‘A really special time’
In 1974, the highly touted defending champs returned to state -- only to have St. Paul Harding rally late to shock them with a 10-7 first-round upset. Bemidji’s 1974 American Legion team, comprised with much of the same roster, also finished as the state runner-up. Many of the players were also members of the BHS hockey team, which won region championships in 1972, 1973 and 1974, finishing second at state in the final year of the three-peat.
“The whole thing kind of mills together into a very unique stretch of success for Bemidji High School sports,” Kannenberg said. “(The 1973 title) would not have been nearly as special if I didn’t have good friends from that team.”
“It was just a really special time,” Johnson added. “Everybody had chances to win championships, but it’s easier said than done. The chips have to fall pretty well for you to get through.”
LUMBERJACK FLASHBACK SERIES
Boys track and field: The 'glory decade' of BHS boys track
Girls track and field: The girl who vaulted into unrivaled ranks
Boys golf: The boys golfer with championship DNA
Baseball: The baseball march into hallowed history