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Prep Softball: Remaking the Saints

Tribune file photo Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg junior Ali Krieger has moved to the pitching circle this season as the Saints replace Erin Haglund and Sam Dunn, record-setting pitchers who helped lead the team to three straight undefeated regular seasons and three state tournament berths.

The Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg softball team will find out this season if it’s one of those durable, formidable outfits that can boast that it doesn’t rebuild, it reloads.

The Saints methodically ripped up their opposition the last three seasons like no other west-central Minnesota team in recent history, regardless the sport.

They were 71-4 the last three seasons, with all four of their losses not coming until the Minnesota state tournament. The Saints didn’t win a state title but three times lost to the eventual state champion by one run.

The Saints have third-, fourth- and fifth-place Class A hardware in their trophy case and they haven’t lost a regular-season game since May 2010.

But the guts of those dominant teams is now gone after five superlative seasons, and the Saints are young – talented, but still young – and start just two seniors.

Gone are Erin Haglund and Sam Dunn, long-time stars who are the program’s top two all-time hits leaders and also dominated in the pitching circle, ending their careers with a combined 113-16 record and earned-run averages that barely crept above one run per game.

It’s like having to replace a Hank Aaron and a Stan Musial who also just happen to pitch like a Nolan Ryan and a Bob Gibson.

Compounding matters, the Saints also need to fill the cleats of slugging third baseman Courtney Olson, also an All-State selection last spring who set a state-tournament record with eight RBI in 2012 and now plays at Ridgewater College.

“Every year you lose good players like that,” said KMS head coach Eileen Suter. “They graduate and move on and you have to find young players coming up to fill those holes. Those two (Haglund and Dunn) were two of the best players in the state and Courtney was all-state, too. Plus, we lost Haley Helms, a quiet player who would have been the best player on other teams. But I think we have good players, they just need experience.”

The Saints’ greatest challenge will come in replacing Haglund’s and Dunn’s pitching exploits in a sport that often is dominated by strong arms.

Dunn, now a freshman playing at Dordt College, won 63 games, first in Saints’ history. Her 463 strike outs are third all-time. Haglund’s 50 pitching wins rank third all-time and her 536 career strike outs are second behind current KMS assistant coach Laura Suter, who is second with 60 victories and first with 569 strike outs.

Junior Ali Krieger and freshman Sam Gjerde will be the Saints’ new arms.

Pitching in difficult conditions, Krieger is 2-0 this season for the 4-0 Saints. She has a 4.30 ERA and has struck out nine in 13 innings.

Gjerde has fared even better, with two victories, a 1.90 ERA and 18 strike outs in 11 innings.

Having Laura Suter as an assistant coach and Haglund around this spring as a volunteer coach has been a big help, Krieger said.

“It’s really different without them (Haglund and Dunn) playing this season,” Krieger said. “We have so much more on our shoulders. I know a lot of teams think we’ll be down this year but I think we’ve shocked the teams we’ve played so far.”

The Saints got together before the season to come to grips with the frustration they’ve inflicted on so many area teams the last few years, Eileen Suter said.

“The target is still on their backs,” she said. “Everybody’s had enough of us and they want to beat us so bad. It could easily happen this year that we’ll lose our share of games, but these players are hard workers and they want to keep up our standards. They have something to prove.”

But many teams would relish playing on par with a “rebuilding” Saints team.

Krieger, who will share time at shortstop with Gjerde, hit .500 last year and she scored 40 runs.

Catcher Kalli Forsell already is a seasoned veteran as a junior. She hit .405 last season with four home runs and 25 RBI. Junior centerfielder Sadie Sulier hit .441 in 2013 and scored 26 runs.

One of the team’s old-timers, senior Michelle Syverson, is back at first base after hitting .341 last season. Gjerde hit .386 as an eighth-grader, with 13 RBI and 23 runs scored.

Krieger looks for support from Gjerde, who plays beyond her age. Krieger hadn’t pitched in three years, having missed her ninth-grade season recovering from knee surgery. Then she played last season in the field while Haglund and Dunn handled all the pitching duties.

“It’s nice having Sam out there,” Krieger said. “She’s been pitching since fourth grade so it really helps me to have her there.”

Weather and field conditions permitting, the Saints play six games in the coming week, a schedule which should give them a better idea what they have this season.

“We started out really strong,” Krieger said, “and I think we’ll stay strong and keep pushing. We’ve started to click and we’re getting used to the changes. I think we can go on a decent run.”

Tom Larson

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

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