While the snowy weather kept most metro high school softball teams inside earlier this month, Maple Grove had a chance to practice outside during its six-day trip to Florida.
The team got in six to eight hours of softball each day during the trip, which it takes every other year. It also played three scrimmages, including two against Eden Prairie.
As the Crimson tries for a third consecutive Class 3A berth, the players are emphasizing team bonding and communication, something they said the trip helped create.
“If you don’t have that, you’re not going to go anywhere,” senior captain Jordan Mauch said. “You don’t remember certain games, but you remember your teammates, so that was the most important thing for us.”
That’s not to say Maple Grove’s past two seasons haven’t been memorable. In 2012 the Crimson went 24-3 and finished second in the state tournament. In 2013 they went 22-3, won the Northwest Suburban Conference and finished fourth at state.
The team has benefited from top-notch pitching each of the past two seasons. In 2012 it was Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year Cayli Sadler, who now pitches for Minnesota Duluth. Last season it was Sydney Smith, a Louisiana State recruit. Smith, now a junior captain, went 19-2 as a starter with a 0.52 ERA last season.
“She’s probably one of our hardest-working players,” said Sammi Sadler, a junior outfielder and Cayli’s younger sister. “She brings so much to our team; that makes everybody more confident that we have a great pitcher, and it makes everybody work extra hard.”
Smith committed to LSU in the fall of her sophomore year, after years of playing high-level traveling softball. This past August, she joined the Kansas-based Wichita Mustangs, a club team where she plays alongside two of her future LSU teammates.
Mauch and Sadler also should play key roles for the Crimson this season. Mauch was second-team all state last season and has signed with Minnesota State Mankato. Sadler hit .567 in 2013 and earned all-conference honors. The team returns seven of its nine starters from last season.
“We have all the pieces we need,” longtime assistant coach Pam Hennen said, “but you have to have all the pieces playing well at the right time.”
Head coach Jim Koltes said he and the coaching staffing are encouraging the players to become more aggressive at the plate, in part to take some pressure off Smith.
“We want to swing the bat hard all the time,” Koltes said. “The top teams in the state are still going to hit Sydney no matter how good she is … so we’ve got to be able to score runs.”
The team has been using technology to improve its approach. At a practice last week, Hennen filmed players taking batting practice with a special iPad app, allowing the players to see what they need to work on.
While the team’s goal is to return to state, the players are also focused on taking the season day by day and not overlooking their opponents.
So far the approach appears to be working. Maple Grove scored six runs against Park Center in its season opener and eight against Champlin Park in its second game. Smith led the way from there, striking out 29 batters in two complete-game shutouts to help the team start the season 2-0.
“It’s not like we assume we’re going to get to state or anything,” Sadler said. “We have to work super hard, just like any other team. I don’t feel like it’s a piece of cake just to get there.”
Nate Gotlieb is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.