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Willmar Notebook: Cardinals overcame fastpitch blues

Tribune file photo by Rand Middleton Heather Horning allowed four hits over six innings on April 28, 2011, in Willmar's home opener against Little Falls played at the college due to field conditions at the high school. This season with the downpours, Willmar played only twice the whole month which condensed its remaining 18 games into 19 days starting May 3.

The Cardinals' fastpitch softball team opened the spring with 4 wins and then dropped 10 straight. The season ended with a 15-0 loss to Minnetonka for a final record of 6-13.

After 10 years with the fast-pitch program, this was the first season as head coach for Shannon Cayler, a mother of 3 boys and a communications teacher at the middle school.

So what happened after the fast and furious 4-0 start? Simple, the team lost the service of its pitcher and clean-up hitter.

Junior Heather Horning had pitched virtually every game both her freshman and sophomore year.

On April 12, she windmilled a 7-hitter, and slugged a 2-run homer in a 12-2 win over Sartell to launch the schedule. At the Hutchinson tournament, she stuck out 11 over 6 innings and got a win and a save in the three Cardinal victories.

But her back had gone bad. She gave up 5 runs in the first two innings in a 6-0 loss to Sauk Rapids. Apparently, she'd gone from throwing BB's to kick balls.

The problem, she explained, was a "shooting pain" in her lower back when she delivered the ball to the plate.

What had happened?

"It started on my right side and when I tried to compensate I overextended" and soon the left side was part of the problem, too.

She had to come out of the lineup. For two weeks she didn't pitch or hit. A power-hitter with a high average her bat was also missed greatly.

Cayler had to reach down to the JV to bring up freshman Leah Ruter. She proved a competitor with good mechanics. She gave the team many good innings but it was too much to ask the slim right-hander to carry the team through the Central Lakes schedule at mid-season, as many 6 games in 5 days.

Heather offered her encouragement. "She handled the mental game pretty well," said Heather. "I really didn't have to tell her much. Sometimes, I'd just remind her when things were not going well, it doesn't mean it's her fault." Horning could only keep book and shout encouragement.

Visits to a chiropractor helped relieve pressure on the stressed muscles. In early May, she began working her way back. She got to pinch hit, responding with a home run in a 7-0 win over Sauk Rapids. Another 7-0 win followed, this one over Apollo. Leah and Heather shared the innings in both shutouts.

But the season ended with 3 more losses by a total score of 26-2, including a 15-0 bashing by Minnetonka in the Class 2AAA playoffs.

Horning is a familiar name in Willmar sports. Her grandfather, Jon Horning, coached teams in wrestling, football and baseball at the high school. Her dad, aunts and uncles and brothers all competed for Willmar.

This was her second season dealing with injury. Last year it was a shoulder; perhaps the result of overpitching in damp conditions after rainouts further compressed the schedule.

But she's hopeful this summer will be different, like old times. She will play for the Willmar 18s, coached by Cayler, in the St. Cloud league. The Willmar 16s will play with the Morris league.

And Cayler looks forward to making up for lost time with her sons, ages 6, 4 and 3. She said she couldn't have handled the head coaching chores without the full support of her husband Tim, a middle school music teacher.

The varsity job means much additional "desk work." There are reports to fill out after each game and the nomination forms stack up.

Technology is helping. The team uses an iPad, usually kept by one of the two managers, to record play-by-play using an ESPN baseball app adopted for softball. At the end of the day, Cayler can download the stats onto a spread sheet which eliminated an hour of imputing data.

While the losses piled up, the team never buckled or turned sullen.

"The girls consistently played hard," she said. "They didn't turn on one another. The people I had on this team were exceptional human beings. I wouldn't trade any one of them."

The team loses nine players to graduation.

Kid baseball a hit

Rob Baumgarn, a rec supervisor at WCER who has to put together the youth league schedules, has to juggle many balls.

It's not only Willmar teams but the Willmar office coordinates the area baseball for 3rd through 7th graders. He pulls the levers to find fields for 18 or 19 3rd-4th grade teams, 17 fifth and 14 sixth grade. "It's crazy," he told me. "Baseball numbers are huge. The kids have a jersey and a hat and they get to go to other towns so they have that traveling aspect. Parents are volunteering. It's working."

Baumgarn said the rec leagues are blending with the weekend traveling teams better than ever before. Kids can do both; they don't have to make a choice.

Atwater, Benson, Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, Raymond-Clara City-Maynard, New London-Spicer and Prinsburg are among the participants. Baumgarn said Prinsburg has three teams but only a single field making scheduling especially tricky for him.

Baker booked

Five teams call Bill Taunton Stadium at Baker Field home. Of course, there's the Stingers with 33 home games but also the American Legion team, the Rails amateur team and VFW I and II. If Baumgarn can find space, he'll roll in the 7th and 8th grade area league for a couple of games.

He figures 85 game dates in June, July and early August.

Baker Field was a diamond encased by an emerald for last evening's Northwoods League curtain raiser. The young pine trees along the outfield fence together with the mature hardwoods behind them provide a pleasing backdrop for watching a ballgame.

The field got about five well-distributed inches of rain in May. Two problem area were remedied last fall when public works dug in new tile drains in left field and behind the right side of the infield and connected it to the main line under the infield which carries rain water to the holding pond.

Alumni golf

Joel Jacobson, the pro at Eagle Creek and a 1974 Willmar graduate, wants to challenge each subsequent graduating class (and those before) to put together a foursome, or two, for the Cardinal Open on June 15, a Friday.

Every class should be able to get together at least one team, all male, all female or co-ed, insists Jacobson, who played on Willmar's state tournament golf team his senior year. He sees it as a kickoff to Father's Day weekend with more alumni in town visiting.

Proceeds go to the Anderson-Erickson Memorial Scholarship Fund and the Cardinal Pride Endowment Fund.

The entry fee is $95 which included cart dinner and a gift bag. Contact Bill Fenske 320-214-7601, or Eagle Creek at 235-1166.

On the fly

n Matthew Weitzel, who ran cross-country and track at Willmar, has been named to the 2012 Spring Iowa Conference All-Academic team. Weitzel was a member of the Luther College track team. Weitzel is a physical education and biology major with a 3.50 GPA.

n Here's how your Willmar Cardinals placed in the Central Lakes Conference standings for spring: both baseball and softball 8th, boys tennis tie 5th, boys golf 5th, girls golf 6th, both boys and girls track fourth.

n Starting next spring all baseball and softball sections will have a double-elimination format when the tournament is down to 8 teams. The past three years the double-elim began when 4 teams were left.

n Also from the MSHSL Bulletin, with the addition of a seventh class (6A) for football, the semifinal games at the Dome will be played over three days -- 4 games on Thursday (Nov. 15), and five games both Friday and Saturday.

n At their Monday meeting, Cardinal Pride, the all-activities booster group, designated a $1,500 grant to Nordic skiing toward the purchase of a grooming machine.

n WCER's Baumgarn is also head football coach at the college. He expects as many as 75 new faces to report for preseason in August. About 20 second-year players are expected to return.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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