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Area towns keeping Grafton American Legion baseball team afloat

Grafton has had a lot of players through the years from nearby St. Thomas and a few from Drayton, as well, on its American Legion baseball team.

This summer, those communities are a lifeline in keeping the Grafton program afloat.

Participation numbers are a problem for the tradition-rich Grafton Legion team. There are only 12 players on its roster, seven of whom are from Grafton.

When Grafton opened Grand Forks’ annual Montgomery Memorial Tournament on Friday with a 3-1 loss to Thompson, its starting lineup included St. Thomas players Johnny Young leading off, Noah Heuchert hitting fourth and John Heuchert ninth. In the No. 7 spot was Drayton's Joe Larson.

"We only had 14 out last year,'' veteran Grafton coach Chad Kliniske said. "Jobs are important now to some kids. They want to spend time at the lake. I had baseball kids who are into motocross.

"They (Drayton and St. Thomas players) are imperative to our program. We may not have a team without them.''

Those aren't just warm bodies filling uniforms.

Larson and Young were all-region picks in high school ball this spring. Noah Heuchert was all-region in 2017, his senior season in high school.

In addition, they fill needs.

"They all can pitch,'' Kliniske said. "We couldn't play four games a week without their pitching. They give us depth. Young leads off. Noah bats clean-up. And they play positions where we had needs.''

Minus the St. Thomas and Drayton players, Kliniske said, he isn't sure where the program would be.

"We would have had to move Babe Ruth kids up to play on the Legion,'' Kliniske said. "Possibly we would have had to bag the Legion season.''

Getting contributions from smaller surrounding towns hasn't been unusual for Grafton, particularly from St. Thomas. When Grafton won its second straight state Legion title in 2013, five players were from St. Thomas, three of whom were regular starters. "And we had a lot of kids on the team back then,'' Kliniske said.

"You can go back and see we've had some very good players from St. Thomas.''

While Grafton’s numbers are low, there is a solid base around which to build. Marcus Niemann gained first team all-state honors for Grafton High School this spring. Riley Hanson and Matt Suda joined Larson and Young on the all-region team.

Grafton improved to 5-3 with a 7-5 win over Bonivital Midget AA in its second game Friday.

"It could be a fun season when everybody is here,'' Kliniske said. "I think our team will be all right, a good team.''