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Prep softball: Just another family outing

Tribune photo by Tom Larson Erin Haglund, left, and Kalli Forsell watch the final innings of Lac qui Parle Valley's game against Wheaton/Herman-Norcross on Thursday in Murdock. WHN defeated LQPV, but Haglund struck out 13 Warriors and KMS improved to 19-0 with a 15-1 win in the Section 3A-West playoffs.

It’s not usual for a softball-playing aunt to drag her niece outside to play a little catch.

But there’s a different set of circumstances at work when auntie Erin Haglund and her niece get together to fire the neon-green pill around.

It usually leads to quite a few strikeouts, quite a few victories for the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg softball team and, perhaps, another spot in the Class A state tournament.

“They’re aunt and niece,” KMS head coach Eileen Suter said of Saints’ ace pitcher Haglund and her battery mate, Saints catcher Kalli Forsell. “But they’re like sisters.”

With Forsell donning the gear and calling the pitches, Haglund struck out 13 Wheaton/Herman-Norcross batters in a 15-1 win in the Section 3A-North semifinals on Thursday in Murdock.

The 19-0 Saints play next against Wabasso at 12:30 p.m. today in the section playoffs in Cottonwood. Aunt and niece will again take the field together as KMS seeks a third-straight berth in the Class A state tournament.

Haglund, 18, and Forsell, 16 in August, aren’t your typical aunt and niece. Haglund’s brother, Andy, is Forsell’s father. Despite the traditional familial hierarchy, the two girls grew up pretty much as siblings.

“We’ve always spent a lot of time together,” Haglund said. “Since we were little, we’ve been playing catch together. When we were really young, (family) told me, ‘You’re her aunt,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’ I knew it but I didn’t know what it meant.”

The two girls shared lineage, a love for sports and a propensity to not only be good at them but to work at them.

Despite the difference in age, the two rural Kerkhoven relatives were able to play together on fourth-grade through sixth-grade teams in the Chippewa Valley League in Benson. With the age difference a touch more pronounced during those years, Haglund and fellow KMS senior star Samantha Dunn developed into stellar role models for Forsell and other younger Saints players.

“Erin and Sam have been around the team a long time,” Suter said. “They really have the work ethic. You would tell them something as fourth-graders and they picked up on it right away and you didn’t have to tell them again. They were my (team) managers as sixth-graders.”

Haglund and Dunn broke into the Saints’ varsity roster as eighth-graders, and Forsell was keenly aware of what it took to compete at that level.

“I’ve always looked up to her, for sure,” Forsell said of her aunt.

Forsell made the varsity roster last season, as a ninth-grader. The Saints were coming off a 25-1 season in which they earned a spot in the Class A state tournament and lost their only game in the state semifinals. KMS walked off with the third-place trophy.

Last season, she earned the Saints’ starting job as catcher, which meant that she’d be working behind the plate with Haglund 43-feet away in the pitching circle a great deal of the time. They took the task seriously.

“They would come in,” said Saints assistant coach Laura Suter, “and they’d ask for some catching gear, some balls and they’d go over to the Salem Church gym (near Pennock) and pitch all winter.”

The bond grew even stronger than it might have without the family ties.

“We can relate a lot more,” Forsell said. “I understand what she wants. We talk at the beginning of the year and figure out what we want to do in certain situations and go from there.”

“She reads my mind, which is weird, actually,” Haglund said. “When I’m pitching and I want to throw a certain pitch, she just knows right then what to call. It’s pretty cool.”

And as close relatives, the trust level is high.

“Do I shake her off?” Haglund said. “Yeah, sometimes. Not too often, though.”

“We can say what we want to each other,” Forsell said with a smile, “and we still love each other.”

KMS coaches know they don’t need to intervene.

“They give each other looks and we’ll just stay out of it,” Laura Suter said.

Seems a lot like the family vibe that Eileen Suter said her Saints have fostered for years. KMS is 67-2 the last three seasons with both losses coming by 3-2 scores to the eventual state champions in the state tournament. They finished in third- and fifth-place. And yet there’s not an ego to be found, she said.

“It’s going to be tough when these players graduate because they’ve been a family,” she said. “There’s no jealousy. They all look out for each other and they just want to win. They really are like a family.”

What the Saints share is a drive to improve, and no two members of the family typify that better than Haglund and Forsell.

Last year, in her first as a varsity starter, Forsell hit .318 with 2 home runs and 11 runs batted in. This year, she’s hitting .457 with 5 doubles, 3 homers and 22 RBIs.

In addition to her phenomenal pitching numbers as a junior and senior (25-1 with 234 strikeouts in 150 innings pitched and a 1.08 earned-run average), Haglund has upped her batting average 159 points (.386 last year to .545 this year) and she has 32 RBIs this year compared to 30 last year in six fewer games.

And even with the high-minded goals, the desire to have fun remains intact.

While her head coach is universally known by her nickname, Blondie, Haglund breaks into a big grin and takes great delight in addressing Suter as Eileen. Forsell smiles at her aunt’s audacity as “Eileen” implores both to get over to the batting nets with their teammates to warm up before their next game. But Haglund pauses: It’s a long way over there — can’t somebody drive her? Blondie shrugs and Forsell smiles again as she heads off with her aunt.

Off the field, the camaraderie is unbroken.

“We spend lots of time together off the field,” Haglund said of her and Forsell. “Qdoba, we watch movies. It’s a cool experience. We eat a lot.”

“They always have smiles on their faces,” Suter said. “They’re just a couple of yay-hoos.”

What family doesn’t have them?

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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