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John's Journal Top 10 From 2023-24: In Time Of Mourning, The Team Shows Its Support

New Prague Baseball Rallies Around Teammate After A Devastating Loss

Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2024 - 10:10 AM


Sam Helgestad (number 4) with his New Prague baseball teammates.


Here is the final Honorable Mention story from the countdown of my favorite John’s Journal stories from the past school year. This was a highly emotional situation in which teammates supported a player after his father passed away. It was originally posted on May 23.

The next installment will be the No. 10 story on my list, and from there we will make our way through the top 10 all the way to No. 1.

NEW PRAGUE -- A few days before Memorial Day, at a beautiful baseball showplace in his hometown called Memorial Park, Sam Helgestad played with a heavy heart. He and his family are mourning the loss of his father, Colonel Jacob C. Helgestad, who died May 17 after a lengthy battle with stage IV bile duct cancer. He was 51.

Sam, a senior at New Prague High School, is not alone, and neither are his mother, Karry, and older sister Lucy. The family has been embraced by the community in town and beyond. Funeral services will be held Tuesday, May 28, at St. Wenceslaus Church in New Prague.

The New Prague Trojans, who won last year’s Class 3A baseball state championship and finished with a record of 24-3, improved to 13-6 on Wednesday with a 13-10 win over Rochester Century at Memorial Park. They finished the regular season on Thursday by defeating Bloomington Jefferson 3-0.

Sam and his senior classmates will have their graduation ceremony on Friday, May 24. His father’s absence will be notable for many reasons. Jake Helgestad, a 1991 New Prague graduate and multi-sport Trojans athlete, was a selfless hero who began serving his country while still in high school.

Before graduating, Jake joined the National Guard to help pay for college at Mankato State. After Sept. 11, 2001, he went to officer training school and later deployed as an officer to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. Jake’s final deployment was as commander of a 425-member unit that served as the evacuation team of the U.S. military from Kabul, Afghanistan; that unit was awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation.

Between deployments, Jake was a volunteer youth hockey and baseball coach in New Prague, beloved by Sam and Lucy and their friends.

It’s pretty amazing to see Sam on the ballfield with his buddies in the midst of everything that has happened and has yet to happen. But for Sam, a 6-foot-5, two-sport Trojans athlete who plans to play college football at Wisconsin-River Falls, there is no other place he would rather be than with his buddies.

“It's really been great with these guys,” he said after the game against Rochester Century. “I got a text from every single one of them as soon as the news broke. I’m just happy to have guys like this in my life to fall back on.”

The death of Jake Helgestad brought back memories for New Prague baseball coach Tanner Oakes. Eight years ago, Tanner’s father, University of Minnesota pitching coach Todd Oakes, died at 55 after a courageous and public battle with leukemia. His disease was diagnosed in June 2012 and he passed away on May 26, 2016.

Tanner Oakes, who was 23 when his father died, has a sense of what Sam is going through but doesn’t take any credit for helping him through a tough time. That’s because the team is the most important thing right now.

“I think it's a whole team thing,” Tanner said. “Sam’s been able to come out and play right away, and just kind of be part of the group and not ignore what's going on but just kind of have a sense of calmness, of support and things like that. The whole team has been really good for him, I think.”

Sam, a rangy outfielder who throws and bats righthanded, came into his senior season with one career home run. In the midst of it all, he has suddenly become a home-run hitter.

Three days after his dad’s death, Sam was with the team for a game at Orono but not in the starting lineup. Oakes put him in as a pinch-hitter, and Sam blasted a home run that helped the Trojans to a 13-2 win.

Emotions? Oh yes. Dry eyes in the house? Not many.

Two days later, against Rochester Century, Sam did it again. After walking in the second inning and hitting a two-out single in the third that brought cheers of “Way to go Sammy” from the hometown crowd, he belted a fourth-inning, two-run homer over the fence in left field to give the Trojans a 10-4 lead.

Emotions? You better believe it.

Senior catcher Michael Beckius, one of Sam’s best friends, said watching Sammy blast baseballs over the fence has been phenomenal.

“I think he's been struggling all year, obviously with his dad getting diagnosed with cancer,” Michael said.

“We look at the situation and we know that some things are bigger than baseball, and we want to rally around him. I don't think any of us know what it's like losing a parent, especially at this age, but he's handled it really well and we're going to continue to rally around him.”

And those home runs? Can anybody explain that?

“It's just great to see,” said Michael, smiling. “Now he's got a guardian angel watching over him.”

--A private family burial will occur at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, where military honors will be conducted by the U.S. Army National Guard Honors Team. The family requests that, instead of flowers, donations be made in Jake's memory to the Minnesota chapter of Folds of Honor, an organization that supports the families of fallen soldiers: Make A One-time Gift - Folds of Honor Foundation 

--Obituary for Colonel Jacob C. Helgestad:

--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] or [email protected] 

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John's Journal Top 10 No. 10: From Coaching To Officiating, Goring Stays In The Game