2015 North Branch graduate Charlie Linder and 2016 graduate Jimmy Skroch – members of the baseball teams at Augsburg and Hamline, respectively – needed a way to keep their skills sharp and gain experience during the summer months. In other words, they needed to find a summer team.
With that in mind, their fathers, Eric Linder and Jim Skroch, took it upon themselves to start a new amateur town ball squad.
“As far as we know, this is the first town ball team North Branch has had,” Jim Skroch said.
Jim and Eric approached local players and potential sponsors, picked out the team name and colors and got the squad entered into the Eastern Minny League, a Class C amateur circuit.
On May 27, the North Branch Nighthawks played their very first game, an 8-2 victory over the Mora Blue Devils.
Jim and Eric are the team coaches, along with Matt Solberg. The player roster consists of two incoming seniors from the Vikings varsity squad – Dillyn Negley and Brady Brodin – and 15 graduates of the North Branch program, ranging from 2017 graduates Ryan Byrkit, Nick Fairbanks and Jared Kozar to Casey Schwalbe from the class of 2000.
Class C rules require that players suit up for teams within 30 miles of their home address, though they need not have graduated from the local high school.
“We’ve been approached by guys from Rush City, guys who might want to try out next year,” Jim Skroch said.
Local fixture Pizza Pub is the official team sponsor. East Central Sports, Post-Haste Business Solutions and Ace Hardware have also lent their support.
“We love the fact that we have Main Street sponsors. We want our identity to be North Branch,” Eric Linder said.
Town ball is played with a mix of professional, college and high school rules. Games last nine innings and hitters use wooden bats, but certain scholastic practices such as courtesy runners for pitchers and catchers are still followed.
The Nighthawks have won five of their first eight games, including a thrilling 5-4 victory over the Nowthen Knights at North Branch High School May 17 during the Midsummer festival.
The Knights jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead when Zach Remund led off the game by drawing a walk, then Derek Williamson doubled to bring him home.
The Nighthawks would miss out on multiple early opportunities to score before finally breaking through in the fourth.
With one out and a runner on first, Josh Beaver (2001) drew a walk on what might have been four pitches. As he trotted to first, several Nowthen players and coaches argued that he had only faced three pitches, but the home plate umpire waved off their complaints.
Colton Danks (2015) hit a single to bring in one run, then Negley slapped a bouncing ball off the third baseman’s chest to load the bases. Nick Pilz (2015) followed with an RBI single, and Tanner Danks (2011) walked to drive in a third run.
The Nighthawks added another run in the sixth. Kevin Johnson (2012) led off with a single and moved to second on a wild pitch. Nowthen hurler Terry Hadden struck out the next two North Branch batters before his opposite number (Charlie Linder 2015) came to the plate.
Hadden threw an inside pitch that Linder turned into a frozen rope to right field to plate a run.
Nowthen chipped away in the top of the eighth, getting two runs back to make the score 4-3.
Between innings, the Nighthawks ran a trivia contest for prizes. Fans could also win a prize for returning a foul ball.
“We want it to be fun to come out to the ballpark,” Jim Skroch said.
Despite starting the bottom of the frame with two quick outs, the Nighthawks earned one run back with a rally that began back-to- back singles by Charlie Linder and Tanner Danks. Jimmy Skroch drew a walk to load the bases, then Tony Dahlberg (2008) hit a grounder that the Nowthen shortstop mishandled, allowing Linder to score.
The Knights put the outcome in doubt in the top of the ninth, scoring a run and threatening to tie by placing runners on the corners with one out.
With Jimmy Skroch on the mound to close out the game, Nowthen catcher Matt Johnson hit a broken-bat grounder that dribbled along the first base line; the tying run would have scored easily, except that the Nighthawk fielders wisely stayed away from the ball as it eventually rolled foul.
Skroch struck out Johnson, then worked the game-ending out when Hadden inexplicably attempted to steal home while Skroch held the ball. A simple toss to catcher Dahlberg put Hadden out by a mile.
“(The game was) very exciting,” Eric Linder said. “We started this team because we wanted to win.”
“Charlie Linder pitched one heck of a game, and we got some timely hitting,” Jim Skroch said.
Charlie Linder picked up the win, pitching 7 2/3 innings while recording six strikeouts – each of which elicited a “Nighthawk screech” over the loudspeakers.
Brodin held the Knights off, picking up two outs across the eighth and ninth innings. Jimmy Skroch earned the save.
The Nighthawks staff asks any player or businessperson interested in joining the team as a player, sponsor or in any other capacity to get in touch with them. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/2sM88u6 or twitter.com/nbnighthawks.
The Nighthawks will participate in the Bandits Bash tournament in Cambridge June 24-25. A home doubleheader will be played July 8 against the Quamba Cubs (noon) and East Bethel Bandits (4 p.m.).
The Nighthawks also have upcoming home dates with the Chisago Lakes Bulldogs (July 9, noon) and Pine City Pirates (July 22, noon).
The Eastern Minny League playoffs are scheduled for late July and early August, with an opportunity to make a run toward a state championship.