Prior Lake didn’t receive a vote in the latest Class 4A softball poll despite starting the season undefeated with victories over two ranked teams.
It hasn’t affected the team’s mind-set one bit.
“We’re kind of the powerhouse right now, even though we’re not ranked,” senior pitcher Angela McBeain said. “We’re shining.”
The team is already openly talking about securing a top seed in the section playoffs, and backed it up on Tuesday in a 1-0 victory over defending Class 4A state champion Eastview. The victory showcased the team’s strongest attribute: pitching.
The Lakers lost six seniors from last year’s team but returned McBeain and Caitlin Stone, another senior pitcher. Together, the twosome is trying to throw Prior Lake into prominence.
“Having two senior pitchers, that’s stabilized everything,” coach Matt Haefner said. “It’s a luxury to have. There’s not many schools that have the pitching we do. And in this game, you win with pitching for sure.”
McBeain, who has committed to play at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, next year, throws the hardest and pairs her fastball with an excellent drop ball. The latter pitch worked especially well against Eastview, helping McBeain throw a complete game.
McBeain was a self-taught pitcher growing up before realizing she had a talent for it. She was on Northfield’s varsity squad in the eighth and ninth grades before transferring to Prior Lake, where she’s been a varsity starter for the last three years.
After some initial nerves on her new team, she settled in to become a reliable arm and occasional first baseman. After the Eastview game she had a 4-0 record and allowed only two earned runs with 27 strikeouts in 32 innings.
“I always call her ‘the bulldog.’ When she gets out on that mound, and I try to calm her down a little bit, she doesn’t want to hear anything,” Haefner said. “She’s so focused and she wants the ball.”
Different skill sets
Haefner describes McBeain as the thrower, while Stone is the pitcher. Stone has more pitches, including a fastball, drop ball and curve, and moves the ball around more in the zone.
She picked up her curveball working with Richard Foore, a former fastpitch softball player turned instructor, who she said has helped her immensely.
“[He] works on more location for pitches, more spin, being able to hit your spots,” Stone said.
Haefner said he’s noticed the difference on Stone’s pitches since she began lessons with Foore.
“Mainly her curveball has gotten a lot better,” he said. “It’s from the spin on her curve and the rise.”
Stone won her first two starts of the year, compiling a 2.30 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 13 innings. Owing to her continued development, she will play for Minnesota State Mankato next year.
Rounding out the Lakers’ pitching staff is tall sophomore lefty Kailey Ahlstrom, who has Haefner excited for the future. But most of the innings this year will go to the seniors, who lifted the team when its bats were struggling to start the season.
Many members of the team’s lineup are younger, and Haefner said he expects four to five of Prior Lake’s sophomores to play in college. In past years the coach, who is also a private hitting instructor, has relied on power for offense. This year he’s content to just use his team’s athleticism.
“We’re quicker, we’re faster so we can take the extra base, we can steal bases, and it’s been a lot more fun,” Haefner said.
This year’s team starts on the mound, though, with two pitchers who force opposing batters to notice them.
“We have the speed, we have the movement, and we have everything in between,” McBeain said. “We’re kind of stacked.”
Ben Gotz is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.