It comes as no surprise that Le Sueur-Henderson is back in the softball state tournament, which runs Thursday and Friday at Caswell Park in North Mankato. The Giants have owned the Minnesota River Conference — a good one for softball — for the last two seasons and are making their third consecutive Class 2A tournament appearance. And they have an ace in senior Carlie Brandt, perhaps the state’s best pitcher.
The one thing missing from all that success: a state championship.
“It’s a huge week,” said Brandt, who will bring her vast skill set to the University of Minnesota next season. “What’s to come will be our biggest challenge, and I am super excited for it.”
In 2014, Le Sueur-Henderson lost to Kasson-Mantorville and Maddie Damon — now a Division I pitching star at Purdue — in the 2A finals. Last year the Giants lost to eventual runner-up Maple Lake in the quarterfinals and ended up with the consolation title.
Those two finishes are all the motivation the Giants (21-3) need, Brandt said.
“Losing to Maple Lake was a disappointment, but we haven’t hung our heads,” Brandt said. “That’s not what this team does. This team is special. Everyone is willing to do whatever it takes. Not a lot of teams have that.”
Even fewer teams have a pitcher like Brandt. The Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year is 21-1 with a 0.35 ERA and a state-leading 296 strikeouts. She has six no-hitters this season and topped 1,000 career strikeouts in April.
“She is so good, it’s incredible,” said Rogers’ Katelyn Kemmetmueller, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year who will play with Brandt at Minnesota next year. “I am so looking forward to being teammates with her.”
Brandt knows all eyes are on her whenever the Giants play, but she prefers to be just another teammate, focused solely on leaving Le Sueur-Henderson with a state title.
“This team has so much talent and so much confidence,” she said. “We have six seniors and they want to leave on a good note. We’re ready to check this goal off our list.”
It’s the debut of the four-class, one-site tournament. There are plenty of fields available, but a weather delay could cause chaos. For the first time since 2005, five-time state champion New Life Academy is absent from the tournament field, having been knocked out in the Class 2A, Section 4 playoffs.
4A: This field looks wide open, with seven of the top 10 teams in the Class 4A QRF ratings eliminated in the section playoffs. Fans of offense will love the quarterfinal matchup between Forest Lake (18-7) and Chanhassen (21-3). The two teams combined to score more than 400 runs this season. Park of Cottage Grove (21-3) might be the deepest team in the field, with quality players such as Hanna Mortenson, Alayna Silvis, Gwen Warling and Delaney Young, and it catches the ball as well as any team in the field. The Suburban East Conference has three teams in the field: Park, Forest Lake and Woodbury.
3A: Will this come down to an all-Big 9 final? Mankato West (23-1) has been ranked No. 1 in Class 3A all season, has the highest QRF rating in 3A and boasts an elite pitcher in Ms. Softball candidate Lexi Schoper, who is 20-0 with a 0.71 ERA and is batting .478. Conference foe Winona is second in QRF rating and lost 2-1 to West on May 6. Hermantown, making its 22nd appearance, finished third in Class 2A in 2015.
2A: Pipestone (24-0) counts among its victories a doubleheader sweep of Le Sueur-Henderson in April. Brandt left in the second inning of the first game after having her hand stepped on while sliding into second base. She is a great equalizer. Rockford (21-3) and Zumbrota-Mazeppa (23-1) are also in the hunt.
1A: The spotlight game of the first round pits the only undefeated team in the field, New York Mills (24-0), against 2015 Class 1A runner-up Badger/Greenbush-Middle River (20-4). Keep an eye on Kimball (21-1). The Cubs average more than 10 runs per game.