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Tom Mix, Published June 15 2012

Mickelson Park could be on last legs as softball tourney arrives for weekend

Fargo - After 50-plus years of hosting some of the region’s premier men’s fastpitch softball tournaments, it appears Mickelson Park is down to its final innings.

There are proposals for construction of a permanent levee through the existing park that borders the Red River. If the

flood-protection project – which has yet to be approved by the city of Fargo – were to be carried out several of the eight softball fields in the park would be lost.

That too would likely be the final putout in the park’s long history of being the home of the annual Eugene Holm North American Fastpitch Association Open Fastpitch Tournament.

The news has been tough to accept for some of the tournament’s regulars who have fond memories of playing and watching games on the popular diamond No. 2 – the main softball field at Mickelson.

“It’s one of the most beautiful settings there is for fastpitch in the Midwest,” West Fargo Knights manager Tom Wilson said. “When you played on diamond No. 2, the fans were right there. The atmosphere was unmatched in North Dakota.”

Nathan Boerboom, a division engineer for the city of Fargo, said the city has received grant money to go toward the levee at Mickelson Park, but remaining funds have yet to be acquired. Construction of the levee will not begin until all funds have been secured and the project is approved by the Fargo City Commission.

With no approval from the city, the project still has a chance to be pushed back, but Boerboom said flood protection eventually will be needed for the north Fargo neighborhood bordering Mickelson.

Eight teams are set to compete in the Eugene Holm tournament this weekend. Festivities kicked off when the Winnipeg Bullets played the West Fargo Knights on Friday night. The championship game is at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The draw of the tournament has always been the opportunity for some of the region’s best fastpitch teams to play with some of the best teams in the world.

This year’s field includes three teams that are ranked in the world’s top 15. The Saskatoon Diamond Backs are ranked sixth and finished third in the 2011 world tournament. The Circle Tap Dukes of Denmarck, Wis., are ranked No. 9 in the world and the Fargo Kegel Black Knights will enter the tournament ranked 11th after finishing 10th at the world tournament a year ago.

“The one thing I like about fastpitch is that anybody has the chance to play against the top players in the sport,” Kegel Black Knights outfielder Kyle Koterba said. “You can’t go and do that in basketball, you can’t do it in baseball, you can’t do it in hockey or golf … Being able to get teams and players from all over the world playing in Fargo is a pretty cool thing.”

Koterba, 35, began playing in the tournament in 1995 when he moved from Montana to Fargo to attend North Dakota State University. He joined a 23-and-under team called the Kegel Young Guns that included former National Hockey League players Matt and Mark Cullen.

Like many players, Koterba got his start with fastpitch watching his father, Wayne, play in regional tournaments in Montana.

“I got into the sport because my dad played,” Koterba said. “A lot of the guys who are playing in this tournament got into the sport through a family connection.”

The West Fargo Knights have two sets of father-son combos – Pat and Matt Johnson and Tim and Nick Tweiten – on their team. Nate and Andrew Potter’s father, Ben, was a longtime player for West Fargo as well.

Fastpitch in Fargo also has become an international draw. Three teams are from Canada, and West Fargo has a trio of players – Jackson Prime, Aaron Knight and Zane Van Lieshout – from New Zealand.

“For Winnipeg this is the place to come and play fastpitch,” said Winnipeg Bullets manager Adrian Brown, who has played or coached in the tournament since 1986. “The competition has always been good.”

The Holm tournament began play at Mickelson in 1953. Holsum Bread Co. defeated Fargo Service Chevrolet 12-4 in the first title game held at the park named after Percy Elman Mickelson, who died in 1952.

Since then the park has become synonymous with elite softball tournaments.

At one time the Holm tournament was a split division and featured the traditional elite tournament of ‘2A’ and other elite teams and a Sunday-only tournament called the Red River Classic. The Sunday tournament featured 40 teams at the ‘A’ level or below.

“Regardless of whether you were in the Holm tournament or the Red River Classic, the main objective was to be on diamond No. 2 on Sunday,” said Wilson, who began playing in the tournament in the mid 70s for Jamestown, N.D. “If you were playing on diamond No. 2 on Sunday that meant the tournament was going well.”

“For someone who started playing in the Holm tournament as an out of town player, it was ‘the’ tournament in the summer.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Mix at (701) 241-5562