The merger with Derham Hall had not taken place when Dennis Denning's Cretin Raiders won 1981 and '82 state baseball championships in Class 2A, the large schools in a two-class system.

The Raiders were seeking another title and in the state semifinals vs. Fridley in 1985. Steve Walsh was a senior and Denning's excellent left fielder, and he already signed as a quarterback for a football scholarship with coach Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Hurricanes.

Walsh was asked by text last week to recall an unhappy event in the Fridley game and responded: "I ran into the gap, ran into the center fielder and dropped it. Gave up a run. We lost 3-2."

Steve went off to Miami and did his high school very proud. He redshirted as a freshman in the fall of 1985, played behind Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde in 1986, then started for two seasons.

Walsh and the 'Canes were 23-1 with him at quarterback, winning the national title with a perfect 1987, losing only to Notre Dame — 31-30, in the famed "Catholics vs. Convicts" game that has led to documentaries — in 1988.

He was fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in '88, and also runner-up to UCLA's Troy Aikman for the Davey O'Brien Award that attempts to cite the nation's top quarterback.

Mal Scanlan, the Cretin-Derham Hall football coach, saw Denning at school and mentioned Walsh finishing just behind Aikman in the O'Brien voting.

And now, 30-some years later, Mal permitted himself a laugh at Denning's response:

"Dennis kind of nodded, in recognition of Steve's great accomplishments at Miami, and said, 'Yah … dropped a fly ball.' "

Denning died Wednesday at age 76 after a couple of years of considerable health issues.

Scanlan was high among legions in St. Paul that Denning impacted — whether it was at St. Luke's or Nativity grade schools, at Cretin-Derham Hall or the University of St. Thomas — and there were laughs to go with sadness in the reflections on this grand baseball man.

"That was the best time of my life, coaching at Cretin, and the No. 1 reason for that was Dennis," Scanlan said. "We had a great run athletically, and he started it.

"He started winning state championships — wound up with six — and the rest of us were getting the same athletes, and thought, 'We better pick it up here.' "

How about that Cretin ball field that Dennis polished as if it was a state championship trophy?

"That was his baby," Scanlan said. "We'd get a heavy rain, a flood down there, and Dennis would call his buddy Snap Leitner at the fire department, and Snap would have that pump truck there in a half-hour, dumping water — and a few rocks — on the street."

Back in May 1985, I wrote a column for the St. Paul newspapers on Denning and his precious field. A main character was Paul Rafferty, an 8-year-old who lived next to The Nook, the neighborhood bar and restaurant, and with a clear view of the Cretin field.

Rafferty was charged that summer as a lookout for bike riders and dog walkers on the field. If he saw one, he'd call the Dennings five houses down the block, and Dennis (if home) would race down the street to confront the scalawags.

For this, Rafferty would receive a reward of 50 cents per culprit.

"That wasn't a bad summer job for an 8-year-old," said Rafferty, who wound up playing for Dennis at St. Thomas. "What a great man and coach. What a great family, the Dennings."

Paul Molitor was at St. Luke's in sixth grade when this event turned into part of the Denning lore:

"I don't remember it as well as Dennis did," Molitor said. "Apparently, we were out playing pickup ball on the sidewalk, I got in a rundown — I had quick feet — and he tripped over me. Broke his wrist, it didn't heal right, and that ended Dennis' minor league playing career."

John Tauer, now the St. Thomas men's basketball coach, remembered playing T-ball on the asphalt as a 6-year-old at Nativity, with Denning in charge.

"My mom came to pick me up and saw us practicing our sliding," Tauer said. "She thought there was an injury risk for 6-year-olds sliding on asphalt.

"Dennis' answer was, 'They won't get injured if they slide properly.' "

Scanlan had another Denning observation: "I know this. If parents of a player at Cretin wanted to ask Dennis a question about playing time, they had better be prepared for the answer."

Not quite as good as "dropped a fly ball," but we also laughed at that one.