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Ridgewater softball reaches new heights

<b>Rand Middleton</b> Ridgewater sophomore first baseman Ashley Schmeling leads the Lady Warriors in doubles and in RBI with 24 this season.

The fast-pitch softball program at the college on the hill was launched this month in 1975.

Coach Arlen Sjerven welcomed 21 hopefuls, many apparently without game experience. Two games were schedule dand a state tournament.

The program grew rapidly following the upward curve of high school softball, which had launched about the same time.

Thirty four years later, the game no longer is overshadowed by baseball.

It stands alone. It's hardball on speed.

The ladies can play a doubleheader in the same time it takes the guys to work out a seven-inning decision. An eight-team tourney can expire before the Cubs can play a Saturday afternoon game at Wrigley.

The Lady Warriors reached the national tournament for the first time in 1988 under Bert Phillips (1982-88). The first state title came the next year under the late Dick Bjur (1988-'91, 1999-2000).

There were five coaching changes in the 1990s. The late Pete Goeser (1991-'93), John Vraa (1993-94, 1995-'99) and Jack Denholm (1994-'95) all took a whack at it. Despite the lack of continuity, the Lady Warriors won two more state titles and two more region titles.

In 2001, along came Todd Thorstad, a local boy from Danube via St. John's University. Baseball was his background, and he was coaching football under John Vraa. This would be his first head-coaching job at the college level.

His first team won four games, the next went 13-15; there hasn't been a losing record since.

The past three teams finished 25-7, 31-8, and 28-8 with both a state and region championship.

This spring's team is 21-8 heading to the MCAC state tournament Friday in Sauk Rapids and Saturday in St. Cloud.

Ridgewater has won the last four state titles and reached the past four NJCAA Division III national tournaments.

As with the other Ridgewater programs, the talent mainly is small town and often local.

Thorstad depends on high-school coaches for leads. High-school and college counselors can be helpful, passing along the name of a student who checks softball as an interest.

The college's large helping of technical programs is a huge plus. Only a few schools in the junior-college network can offer the chance for fast-pitch, and say, vet tech or nursing.

But you can't beat "word of mouth."

"A good experience here (by a player) becomes your best recruiting tool," said Thorstad. "They go home and tell friends. That helps."

The MCAC softball loop has 13 teams with Anoka-Ramsey and Dakota County slated to come in next year.

It's a hitters' league. That puts a premium on fielding; not just gathering up the ball but knowing what to do with it and not multiplying a mistake with wild throws.

In the South Division, where the Lady Warriors live, four teams are hitting .300 or better and a fifth, league champion Rochester, is batting .298.

The South's top ten in batting average range from .431 to .554.

Still, it starts with pitching.

Thorstad said he won't get many pitchers here that will "blow it by" the batters.

"You look for consistency, keeping the ball low, throwing strikes," he said.

In Saturday's two wins over Minnesota West, Ridgewater pitchers Heather Thoma, Molly Anderson and Kristin Kahle totaled one walk issued and eight Ks over 14 innings.

Thoma, who had modest success as a senior pitching at Willmar High, was 12-0 for the Lady Warriors last year and is currently 11-2. In 85 innings, she has fanned 64 and walked only five.

Thorstad ranks Thoma "one of the top two pitchers in the league."

Kahle, a freshman from Winsted, is 7-2 while allowing nine walks over 62 innings.

Thorstad sorted through a half-dozen potential pitchers to start the season He shifted Jodi Merritt to shortstop. The former Canby Lancer would have been an asset on the slab, but her athletic ability made her more valuable at shortstop.

Thorstad takes no credit for the pitching.

"I've been blessed with pitchers and catchers that have had a lot of good coaching before they get here," said Thorstad. "I just get to recruit them."

One key is fitting a player to their best position at the new level. In small schools, the best athlete might be put at shortstop, though more suited to first base or center field.

Ashley Schmeling, the team's RBI leader from Corvuso via Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, played some shortstop in high school but has settled in at first base here.

Thorstad is especially pleased with his outfield of Tara Thielke in left, Danyel Stoufer in center and Patina Queenan in right.

Next year's recruiting class looks like one of the best yet.

It includes Brandi Bodin from MACCRAY, Emily Roelike from Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, Wabasso standout Ashley Fennern, plus Kayla Rowden, a 2008 grad, and Brooke Henderson, stars of the Pipestone Arrows' Class AA runner-up last spring.

Going into the state tournament, the state rankings have Rochester (26-3), Itasca College (32-10) and Ridgewater 1-2-3.

As division champion, Rochester has an automatic bid to host Region 13A Tournament. The Lady Warriors need only to finish third out of the four South teams in the state tourney, but obviously it's important how they measure up with Rochester. The two teams split twinbills during the year.

Warrior baseball

Ridgewater baseball coach Joel Barta started out from practically zero this summer. The new coach had only one freshman return from Dwight Kotila's final squad.

Despite the late start, the former head coach at senior colleges in Texas and Wisconsin has got the Warriors (14-19) into the state tournament as the eighth seed starting Friday at Putz and Faber Fields in St. Cloud.

It's a good opportunity for the practically all-freshmen squad to see what it will take to challenge for a division title next year.

CLC lauds pitcher Hanna Pederson

Senior Willmar Cardinals pitcher Hanna Pederson was named Softball Performer of the Week on Monday by the Central Lakes Conference. She was credited with four wins and a save the previous week while fanning 32 and allowing seven runs.

She followed that up on Tuesday retiring the first 16 Sartell batters she faced. She finished with a two-hit shutout and fanned 14 without a walk.