A year after it took a Herculean effort spread over two days to knock off No. 1 seed Burnsville, Bloomington Jefferson took a quicker route to clinching its second trip to the state softball tournament.
It was no cinch, but the Jaguars emerged from Class 3A, Section 3 again last week at Eagan High School. Playing the role of the favorites this time, top-seeded Jefferson did away with the Blaze 9-4 in the championship game to again advance to play at Caswell Park in North Mankato with a championship plaque on the line.
The Jaguars (17-2) head down Hwy 169 with a different feeling from a year ago.
"We have something to lose," said senior Emily Gavel, who clocked a two-run double to spark Jefferson's comeback over the No. 3 seed Blaze after Burnsville took a 4-3 lead. "We have to take nothing for granted. We lose that first game, we have no chance. We feel we have three games left; we're the Jaguars and we want to take it all."
That's been the feeling from the start this season, with every member from last year's starting lineup back for more.
"The kids came in this year with a lot of confidence, knowing what we could do," coach Penny Witzenburg said. "The biggest thing is, when we started practice we didn't have to go through first-day things or tryouts. We came into Day 1 working on double plays and all kinds of different things. We got a big jump right away at the beginning of the season. We picked up right where we left off."
Once at Caswell Park on Thursday for its quarterfinal game against Mankato East (24-3), which placed third in Class 2A last year in a de facto home tournament, the biggest hurdle will be a clear mind with no memory.
Bloomington Jefferson was rocked 16-1 by eventual state champion Hastings in the opening round last June, including a state-tournament record 11 runs allowed in the seventh inning.
"We want to go down there to win," pitcher Hannah Evavold said. "It's going to take our bats, our pitching and defense. We've all had bad games and know what that feels like. We don't like it."Crimson is poised
Maple Grove comes into its second Class 3A tournament in three years as the top-ranked team among the state's biggest schools.
The Crimson opens tournament play on Thursday against Big Lake (14-7) riding an eight-game winning streak. Its lone loss with pitcher Cayli Sadler in the circle was a 1-0, one-hit defeat by Park Center.
"It's almost unreal," said Sadler, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year with a 22-1 record, 255 strikeouts and a 0.75 ERA. "I don't think any of us knew what to expect. But once those first few games went by, we knew this was a pretty special team with the chance of a good season."Orono, Mound Westonka in the mix
Two other west metro teams are back at state after brief layoffs.
Orono (23-1), now in Class 3A, is in the state field for the first time since Chelsey Durland pitched the Spartans to the Class 2A state championship in 2008. They open state play Thursday against defending runner-up Forest Lake (23-1).
In the quarterfinals of Class 2A on Thursday, Mound Westonka (16-9) takes on Cloquet (13-9) in the White Hawks' first state game at Caswell Park since 2009.
Brian Stensaas • 612-673-4127