Prep softball preview: Fighting Saints look to return to state tourney
The Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg softball team showed opponents what lay in store for them this season even before the last out of last season was recorded.
For the second straight year, the Saints lost their only game of the season in the Class A state tournament, by one run, to the eventual state champion. KMS responded by winning their next two games by 14 runs and taking home a fifth-place trophy.
When weather permits, the Saints will open this season with seven returning starters, including their top two pitchers and their best hitter.
“I thought last year we were an even better team than the year before (when the Saints finished 23-1 and placed third in Class A),” said Saints senior pitcher and shortstop Samantha Dunn. “Losing that (3-2) game to Cherry was a bummer but it fueled a fire. We really want to get back there again.”
First, the Saints need to get outside. Last year, the team spent just a week inside before its field was ready for practice. As of the end of last week, KMS had spent the first four weeks of practice in the gym.
“We feel like we’ve been in there forever,” said pitcher and shortstop Erin Haglund. “We can’t waint to get out on the field.”
Haglund was 12-0 with a 0.74 earned-run average heading into the state tournament. Haglund plays shortstop when Dunn pitches and she hit .397 with 10 doubles and 30 RBIs.
Dunn was 9-0 with a 1.17 ERA before the state tournament, striking out 56 in 54 innings. She hit .593 with 8 home runs, 28 RBIs, 46 runs and 20 stolen bases.
Senior Courtney Olson will be back at third base after setting a state-tournament record with 8 RBIs. She hit .481 with 7 home runs and 34 RBIs before the tournament and was named an all-state honorable mention. Head coach Eileen Suter calls Olson the Saints’ most dangerous offensive threat.
Suter also has senior starters back in left field (Haylie Helms), and first base (Lyndsay Jorgenson). Sophomores Kalli Forsell and Sadie Sulier are back at catcher and in centerfield, and sophomore second baseman Alison Krieger is back after missing the entire 2012 season with a knee injury. Krieger also is the Saints’ No. 3 pitcher.
Junior Shelly Severson and two eighth-graders, Samantha Gjerde and Molly Jeppson, are in the rotation in right field, Suter said.
The Saints lost two Tribune All-Area players, Ellen Johnson and Brielle Hauge, but the team is confident in Suter’s ability to nuture new talent.
“(Suter) is good at coaching younger kids and I know our young players will be stepping up,” Dunn said. “We lost some good players but we’re confident new players will step up and do a good job.”
Despite their talent and experience, the Saints can expect tough challenges in the Camden Conference and in Section 3A, Suter said.
“It’s not going to be a cake walk,” she said. “Anything can happen. But I can’t wait to get in a game. We’re so sick of being in the gym. I want to see them play because they’re going to be good. I hope they can keep their heads and I hope they can deal with the pressure because they’re going to be fun to watch.”
Teams and Players to Watch
ACGC was a .500 team overall but finished second with an 8-4 record in the West Central South Conference the Falcons return with three players from last season’s Tribune All-Area players: senior shortstop Natasha Dallmann hit .404 with 16 runs batted in and 14 steals, had a .569 on-base percentage and slugged .673 with also pitching two wins. Senior pitcher Sydney Larson won 7 games, hit .441 with 6 home runs, 14 RBIs and 14 steals. Senior catcher Erica Melbie led the team with a .462 average, set a school record with 18 steals and she drove in 23 runs and scored 29 runs.
Benson/Hancock, like ACGC, was a .500 team overall but finished 7-5 in the West Central South and won a playoff game in Section 3AA. The Braves lost two Tribune All-Area players – superb leadoff hitter MacKenzie Jensen and first baseman Kendra Schmidgall — but head coach Ken Grunig returns with a roster that includes 10 seniors.
MACCRAY was 10-7 overall and 8-6 in the Camden Conference last year and they won a Section 3A playoff game before falling to Dawson-Boyd. But head coach Nancy Thoma lost Tribune All-Area picks Paige Ammermann and Hailey Goeman and she has a young roster that features just two seniors, five juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen.
Minnewaska was 18-3 overall last season and was tied atop the West Central North with a 9-1 mark before winning a Section 6AA game and then losing to a 20-4 Ottertail Central team. Back for the Lakers is its battery, junior pitcher Madison Phillips and senior catcher Julianne Helander. Phillips started and earned a decision in all 22 Laker games and she posted a 2.21 ERA with 81 strikeouts. She hit .435, scored 24 runs and was perfect in 13 steal attempts. Helander hit a gaudy .511, with team-record 5 home runs and she scored 23 runs.
Morris/Chokio-Alberta won the West Central South with an 11-1 record. The Tigers were 17-5 overall and won three of five Section 3AA playoff games. The Tigers return with two Tribune All-Area players, senior shortstop Sadie Fischer and senior pitcher McKenzie Van Batavia. Unfortunately, a third Tiger on the Tribune All-Area team, Tracy Meichsner, will miss the season after suffering a knee injury in basketball. Fischer hit .386 with 19 RBIs and she stole 14 bases. Van Batavia was 17-5, with 130 strike outs in 140.1 innings. At the plate, she drove in 15 runs. Meichsner’s .405 average, 24 RBIs and 26 runs will be missed.
Paynesville was a .500 team that won a playoff game before being eliminated in the Section 6AA playoffs. The Bulldogs feature one of the area’s top young players. Sophomore pitcher and second baseman Kayla Schaefer hit .460 with 19 RBIs during the regular season, and she had seven hits in nine playoff at-bats to earn all-section honors. She had a 2.62 ERA and fielded her position at a .956 clip.