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Prep softball: KMS ready for another state run

Tribune file photo KMS senior pitcher and shortstop Sam Dunn, in a file photo, is one of six Saints seniors who will wrap up their prep careers in the Minnesota State Softball Tournament, beginning Thursday in North Mankato. The Saints are 70-2 the last three seasons and will play in their third-straight state tournament.

Aside from the passage of 365 days, very little will have changed when the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg softball team plays its quarterfinals game against Red Lake Falls in the Class A Minnesota State Tournament at 1 p.m. on Thursday in North Mankato.

Seven of the eight teams in the Class A field are back from last year’s tournament, including all the teams that placed in the top six.

KMS is back with its pitching staff and most of its top hitters back. The Saints were 21-0 entering the 2010-11 tournament and placed third. They were 23-0 entering last year’s tournament and finished fifth.

They are 22-0 this year. So what’s the intangible that will get the Saints over the finish line in first this time?

“All of us seniors know that, after this state tournament, we’re done,” said Saints senior pitcher and shortstop Sam Dunn. “We’ve been trying to win this since our sophomore year. Just knowing we don’t have another shot, that really gets us going.”

But urgency doesn’t portend nerves. In fact, the two previous trips, collectively, have stripped them away, Dunn said.

“A bunch of us have been there and we know what to expect,” Dunn said. “When we were here in 10th grade, we were overwhelmed by it all. Even last year we were nervous before that first game. This year, we can just go out and play our game.”

When the Saints have done that, they’ve been dominant. The Saints managed just two hits off Cherry’s Shaina Novak and struck out 12 times in a 3-2 quarterfinals loss. With the nerves gone, they scored 22 runs in wins over Sebeka and Red Lake Falls and Courtney Olson set a state tournament record with 8 state tournament RBIs.

This year, they’ve outscored opponents 258-31 and Dunn and ace Erin Haglund have a combined 1.20 earned-run average and 190 strike outs in 117 innings.

“It really comes down to senior leadership,” said Saints coach Eileen Suter. “From top to bottom, we’re a stronger team than we were last year. If we can hit we can do well because we’ve got the pitching.”

KMS is hitting .440 this year, led by Haglund’s .539, and Olson is hitting .515 with 8 home runs and 43 RBIs. Haglund has 36 RBIs and Dunn is hitting .500 with 31 RBIs.

New players have played huge roles this season. Sophomore second baseman Alison Krieger is hitting .492 and she’s drawn 21 walks, driven in 18 runs and scored 38. Sophomore Sadie Sulier is hitting .467 and she’s scored 26 runs, eighth-grader Sam Gjerde is hitting .361 and scored 23 runs and sophomore Kalli Forsell, a .318 hitter with 11 RBIs last year, is hitting .446 this year and has doubled her RBIs.

While last year’s team had more home runs (31 to 13 this year), the Saints this year have driven in virtually the same number of runs. And the production is coming from throughout the lineup, Olson said.

“We’re hitting with more power,” Olson said. “Last year, we got lots of hits but this year it seems everybody can hit for power.”

“Honestly,” Dunn said, “at the beginning of the season, I thought last year’s team was better. We had Ellen (Johnson) and Brielle (Hauge). But this new team has impressed me. Starting the year, I thought we’d have to fight just to get to the state tournament and now I think we can do really well.”

Haglund’s performance will be critical. Although she essentially splits pitching duties with Dunn (9-0, 1.11 ERA) during the season, the Saints will ride Haglund’s right arm in the tournament.

Haglund was 15-1 last year with a 1.15 ERA and 131 strike outs in 97 innings. This year, she’s 13-0 with a 1.25 ERA and 133 strike outs in 73 innings.

“I think I’m better than I was last year,” Haglund said. “This year I told myself that I was playing to have fun, so there’s not so much pressure. I’m in better shape and I’m more determined.”

“Erin’s is definitely one of the best pitchers in the state,” Olson said. “We’re lucky to have her out there for us. If we just play our game, we’ll be OK. We can’t be thinking about last year. We have to forget about that and focus on this year.”

There will be plenty of time, down the road, to think about three superlative seasons. The Saints are convinced a state championship would be a great point to begin those reminiscences.

“I think the whole season we’ve been determined and motivated,” Haglund said. “We’ve got something to prove. That’s the drive behind this team.”

Tom Larson

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

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