Hulne: Austin and Albert Lea baseball co-op was a success

Published 6:41 pm Monday, July 29, 2013

When I first heard the Austin and Albert Lea Legion baseball teams were combing forces this summer, I was a little bit skeptical.

Then I saw their first game and I was still a little hesitant to jump on board. It was clear to see the Austin players on one side of the dugout and the Albert Lea players on the other side of the dugout. It was as if you took two kids who had been suspended for fighting each other in school and forced them to work on a science project together.

Then the summer went by and I didn’t see the team much as they played a majority of their games in Albert Lea.

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When the District tournament rolled around this past week I was pleased to see the group of players who once looked like two teams forced together had melded together as one team.

If I didn’t know the Austin kids on the team, I wouldn’t have been able to tell who was from what town. Players from both towns were high fiving and supporting each other on a regular basis.

Steven Clennon, who will be a senior in Austin this fall, was one player who seemed to benefit from the combined effort. His bat came alive and he found a new position at third base.

Shortly after Austin-Albert Lea’s season came to an end in the District 1 semifinals in a loss to Owatonna after AAL had won three straight elimination games, Clennon was very pleased with how the summer went.

“This is honestly the best experience I’ve had in baseball,” Clennon said. “It’s a great group of guys and I’m going to miss it. At first it was real awkward and we didn’t have that chemistry but now we all know each other and we’re pretty close.”

It’s one thing to combine two high schools to play a sport together. It’s quite another to combine Austin and Albert together. The two schools are just a short stretch of highway apart and there are rivalries that run thick in almost every sport.

Austin and Albert Lea athletes aren’t supposed to be friends. That’s just the way it works.

At least twice in the past few years the word Tiger has been painted over Packer at Art Hass Stadium before the two teams met on the football field and whenever an Austin team beats an Albert Lea squad or vice versa, the victory always seems to taste a little sweeter for the winner.

Austin-Albert Lea co-head coach Jay Enderson said the co-op was a little bit awkward early on, but he was pleased with how it went. It was certainly better than the alternative which would’ve meant neither town having a Legion baseball team.

“I think it was better for both towns and I think friendships were made,” Enderson said. “Overall it was a good thing for everybody and for me it was a privilege. I haven’t heard a negative thing yet.”

The difference of rival to friend may have been most apparent in two of the team’s biggest stars. Gabe Kasak of Austin and Dylan See-Rockers of Albert Lea didn’t know each other too well before this summer, but their dads were friends with each other in high school.

Kasak said this summer changed the way he saw his former opponent on the baseball diamond.

“When we went head to head in high school it was like ‘I hate that guy and I don’t like him,’” Kasak said. “When you play with him, you get to know what type of guy he is and now I’d definitely like to keep in touch with him.”

The Post 91 and Post 56 Legion teams combined to give Austin it’s best postseason baseball run in at least six years, but it may have also forged some friendships. That was pretty clear after the final game had ended and See-Rockers and Austin’s Zach Huntley were making sure that they would be playing golf together later this summer.

I’m sure Austin and Albert Lea will still be rivals in most sports, but next year’s baseball teams may have a little more respect for each other than they had in the past.

Rocky Hulne is the sports editor of the Austin Daily Herald. Follow him on twitter at RockyHulneADH.