Mike Bjerkness and Joe Tautges had their share of success playing high school baseball for the Brainerd Warriors.
Bjerkness was the starting second baseman on Warrior teams that won the state title in 1995 and were runners-up the next year. He later played two years at Central Lakes College.
Tautges pitched, caught and played infield for the Warrior team that finished fourth at state his junior year. He went on to play at Waldorf College in Iowa, Division I Evansville (Ind.) and for the Brainerd Blue Thunder of the Northwoods League.
Since then both have become two of the area's most accomplished slow-pitch softball players and have experienced success as members of the Tharaldson Enterprises team from Fargo, N.D.
Brainerd High School graduates Joe Tautges (left) and Mike Bjerkness helped Tharaldson Enterprises of Fargo, N.D., win the Class B Hooters Cup National Championship slow-pitch softball series.
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On Oct. 2-3, at the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame complex in Oklahoma City, they helped Tharaldson win the Class B Hooters Cup National Championship Series, the highest honor a softball team can achieve. Tharaldson won the best-of-five series with 18-8, 8-7 and 13-0 victories over Checking/Worth of New Haven, Conn.
Bjerkness went 1-for-5 in the event while playing third base. Tautges was 3-8 with four RBIs and played middle infield.
"Only two (B) teams out of thousands in the nation have an opportunity to play in this," Bjerkness said. "It was just a great experience in life in general, a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Tautges termed the experience was "awesome."
"I've never been in anything like that, especially playing at the hall of fame stadium," he said. "It was beautiful, the scenery around was cool. You don't see softball complexes like that. I consider myself fortunate. Being this young (25) and getting to experience that was really neat."
Bjerkness said one Class B team from the Eastern section of the country and another from the West is invited to play in this tournament.
"We were asked to go to nationals in Lawton, Okla., on Labor Day weekend," he said. "To be asked to the Hooters Cup you had to win the West national in Lawton, Okla., which we did, for the right to play the East champion."
Bjerkness, 31, has been playing for Tharaldson for four years, three full-time. He played against the Fargo team a few times and eventually they asked him to join them full-time.
"We play in two or three national tournaments around the country, everywhere from Bismarck (N.D.) to you name it in the Upper Midwest," he said.
"We're very fortunate. With Gary Tharaldson as our sponsor, we don't pay anything to play. He pays for mileage, air fare, hotels, we can bring our wives, it's a pretty unique experience."
Tautges hooked up with Tharaldson thanks to Bjerkness, who works with Tautges at Integra Telecom in Baxter, where Bjerkness is the repair supervisor and Tautges the billing administrator.
Tautges, who has played for Tharaldson full-time the last two years, also praised the team's sponsor.
"I'm real fortunate to play for a team like that, especially the way the economy is right now," he said.
Tharaldson finished its season 63-5 but Bjerkness said the competition will be even tougher in 2010.
"In the softball world, with the quality of competition we play, I believe we won't touch (63-5) again," he said. "We had an extremely good year. We haven't been beat since July. We went through state and national tournaments and never lost a game. That's a first for me. I can't remember the last team to have done that at any level, let alone the top level like that.
"We've been bumped up to Class A. Basically, there's 12 Class A teams in the whole nation. It's a pretty high level, as high as you can go. Guys you see on TV playing for USA Slow-Pitch teams are guys we'll play against.
"It's a lot of fun to be from somewhat of a rural area in Minnesota and play against guys who sell merchandise on TV commercials."
Tautges said this may have been the best season of his softball career. He hit about .750 and while in Oklahoma he also played for the Class A Fence Broker Gametime Supply team from Arkansas that finished second behind Long Haul Trucking of Lakeland, Minn. Tautges was named to the ASA Men's Class A All-American team.
MIKE BIALKA may be reached at email@example.com or at 855-5861.
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