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Chad Kliniske steps down after 20 seasons as Grafton head coach

Chad Kliniske watches Thursday's game against Langdon-Edmore-Munich from the Grafton dugout, rather than the Spoilers' coaching box he occupied for the last 20 seasons. Photo/Larry Biri, Walsh County Press.

GRAFTON, N.D.—When Joe Demers first got into organized baseball here, playing t-ball as a 6-year-old, Chad Kliniske was the Grafton High School baseball coach. When Demers graduated from Grafton High, Kliniske was his coach throughout his high school and American Legion baseball playing career.

Demers went on to play baseball four seasons at Valley City State University. The 24-year-old is back in Grafton. And now Demers is the Spoilers' head baseball coach; Kliniske resigned from the position in January, but still is in the dugout as a volunteer assistant.

"It's kind of weird that Chad isn't the head coach any more,'' Demers said. "He's been the coach for so long, when you think about Grafton baseball you think of Chad.''

Kliniske still has a passion for baseball. In addition to helping as an assistant coach, he is joining the ranks of umpires this spring.

But as his role with the baseball program expanded, it became a grind for the 47-year-old Kliniske.

"The job changed a lot,'' Kliniske said. "When I was hired, it was to coach, to schedule games and be in charge of the kids. Then it got to be things like groundskeeper, fund-raiser and bus driver, as well.

"I made a comment a few years ago that about the only thing I didn't do was run the grill and the concession stand. Then last year somebody said I needed to go get gas for the grill. That was sort of the clincher.''

Kliniske leaves behind a baseball coaching legacy.

When he took over the program in 1998, Grafton was in Class A. The program was switched to Class B in 2004 and, after placing second in the region that season, the Spoilers made their first state high school tournament appearance in 2005.

It was back to region runner-up in 2006, followed by a run of nine consecutive region championships and Class B state tournament appearances, the last in 2015. In those nine seasons, the Spoilers had an overall 209-46 record. While a Class B state title eluded Grafton, the team was 2-1 at state in every season, four times finishing second and never lower than fifth.

"We were close,'' Kliniske said. "It takes a lot of things to fall into place to win state. In all those years, it never did for us.''

Kliniske does have two state titles on his resume, as Grafton won American Legion state baseball championships in 2012 and 2013. Between the two programs, Kliniske has more than 1,000 baseball coaching wins.

Leaving the high school program wasn't easy. "I was there for our first game this spring. I had tears in my eyes. It was sad,'' Kliniske said.

"When I sat in the office of Randy (Rice, Grafton athletic director) in January to tell him I was quitting, I cried. I could see the baseball kids walking in the hallway. They knew why I was there. That was really tough. I love the kids. I love the game.''

Kliniske still is at the ballpark on a semi-regular basis as an assistant. He's still manicuring the infield, pulling grass and weeds. But the coaching box now belongs to Demers.

"This winter, Chad told me he was done and he asked me if I was interested in the job,'' Demers said. "Chad has developed such a winning culture. I want to maintain and add to that.

"I don't feel any pressure with him as an assistant. I wanted to have him helping. I ask him to let me know if he sees anything to work on. But he lets me run the show. He comes to practice, asks what he needs to do and it's done. His passion for baseball is off the charts.''

Kliniske still may coach Legion ball this summer. "Technically, I am right now. But I have to keep my options open,'' he said. Kliniske doesn't rule out a return to high school coaching someday. But, if he doesn't return as a head coach, he has no regrets.

"I'm so grateful, so lucky,'' he said, ''because I got to do what I love for 20 years.''