Softball section playoffs begin this week and four teams are taking aim at history. State tournament expansion means one team will capture the first Class 4A title. Top-10 teams Anoka, Elk River, North St. Paul and Park of Cottage Grove all have what it takes to make a deep run. Here’s a look at what has made them shine.
Seven Anoka players in the starting lineup for the Class 3A title game returned this season looking to capture a state championship. Pitcher Amber Elliott leads the way. She set a school record with 17 strikeouts in a 6-0 victory over Spring Lake Park this spring. Continuity hasn’t led to complacency. Coach Toni Jesinoski has shuffled her lineup throughout the season. But players have responded. The Tornadoes, ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll earlier this season, went 4-0 against Section 7 opponents and lost just once to a Minnesota team. Clicking down the stretch, Anoka allowed a combined four runs in five games in May. Team leaders include Makayla Zimmer, an all-tournament selection last season.
Six seniors and no juniors make Elk River’s age demographics unique. So much so that coach Stacey Sheetz calls the Elks’ ascension to No. 5 in the mathematical Quality Results Formula rankings a pleasant surprise. “I’m so proud of them,” she said. “The leadership and chemistry have been wonderful.” Good pitching helps, too. Olivia Wolters has become adept at finishing games strong. She won 13 of the Elks’ first 16 games. Fellow seniors Marie Deaton, Madison Haley, Jayme Langbehn, Anna Neuman and Sophia Schutt have made contributions in large and small ways. Victories over conference foes Anoka and Maple Grove brought confidence. And a 4-1 loss to Rogers taught good lessons. Overcoming the Royals in Section 8 will be key to Elk River’s state plans.
North St. Paul
North St. Paul was supposed to be rebuilding after big graduation losses followed a 2014 state tournament run. Not so. The Polars are once again one of the top teams in Section 4. Senior pitcher Madeline Greer set the tone with torrid offseason workouts. “We knew she had the talent but she worked really hard all winter to improve her craft,” co-head coach Tom Nemo said. Greer has benefited from an offense averaging more than eight runs per game. Sophie Cave and Megan Rubbelke have combined for nine home runs and 56 RBI. Lily Langevin and Kallie Stepaniak have scored a combined 48 runs. Other contributors include Ryan Crotty and Abbie Warzeka.
Park of Cottage Grove
A 16-1 roll through much of the season brought Park of Cottage Grove its share of reward. The Wolfpack won the Suburban East Conference and coaches saw enough to vote the Wolfpack No. 1. Then came a 2-0 loss at Roseville last week. Coach Bob Loshak said of the setback, “Hopefully, that will be the kick in the pants we need going into the playoffs.” Pitchers Hanna Mortenson and Bryanna Olson, backed by a disciplined defense, have held opponents to a run or less in 10 games. Senior Gwen Warling (third base) and converted outfielder Alayna Silvis (short stop) anchor the left side of the infield. Offensively, Madi Meduna, Shelby Porter, Delaney Young and the other Wolfpack batters have shared the starring role.