Sean Hjelle played baseball and basketball. But there’s no doubt which sport is No. 1 for the recent Mahtomedi graduate.
“It was always baseball,” said Hjelle, a righthanded pitcher. “I live for being on that mound. I can’t even put into words what it feels like to be up there. It’s just one of those indescribable things.”
That love for the game has helped bring success. Hjelle went 8-2 with a 1.23 ERA for Mahtomedi this spring, leading his team to a second consecutive state tournament appearance. Now he’s off to the University of Kentucky for baseball workouts. He said he will likely pitch out of the Wildcats’ bullpen to start.
Though the Zephyrs lost in the opening round of the state tournament, they won a couple of extra-inning games in the Class 3A, Section 4 tournament and just kept battling, Hjelle said. He admitted to struggling with focus at times during the season, but leaned on his teammates.
“Those guys would jump through a wall for me, and I’d do the same for them,” Hjelle said.
Coach John Hardgrove recognized the leadership his team received from their captain. “He set the tone five minutes before practice would start,” Hardgrove said. “Kid like that, that kind of keeps you grounded.”
Hjelle uses his changeup as his “go-to pitch” to get batters out. He likes the movement and deception of the pitch that comes in looking like a fastball. He’s also reached 91 mph on the radar gun, but speed isn’t his focus.
“None of that really matters if you can’t throw a strike,” Hjelle said.
His goal remains the same each time he takes the mound.
“My job is to go out there and keep my team in a position to win,” he said. “That’s what I tried to do every game.”
For Hardgrove, Hjelle was one of the best kids to come through the Mahtomedi baseball program. Hjelle didn’t let things bother him, and he was always ready to move on to the next game, Hardgrove said.
“He demonstrates a great presence on the mound,” Hardgrove said. “He’s a competitor, is what he is. He’s willing to take the responsibility of the team’s success on his shoulders when he goes out.”
So what makes Hjelle a standout pitcher? Standing 6 feet, 11½ inches on the mound certainly doesn’t hurt. “I just round up and say 7 feet,’’ he said. He knows the extra arm length is quite the advantage, making the ball appear to travel to the plate a lot faster, he said.
“Baseball is a game of inches,” he said. “It all just adds up.”
His teammates recognize the importance, too. Mitch Nordin, a junior pitcher this spring, benefited from Hjelle’s guidance.
“I wouldn’t want to be hitting against him,” Nordin said. “His arm is almost to home plate when he releases the ball.”
Hjelle also attributes his success to the coaching and support he’s received. His dad coached him as a youngster and “kind of let me figure it out on my own,” Hjelle said. His traveling team coach, Herb Gibson, is like a second father to him, Hjelle said.
He will bring everything his support system taught him to Kentucky, as he adjusts to intensity and competitiveness “on a whole new level,” he said. The chance to play collegiate baseball is humbling for him.
“It’s one step closer to the ultimate dream, which is to one day hopefully be playing in the MLB,” he said.