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What’s buzzing, and what should be buzzed about, in the wide world of Minnesota high school sports.

St. Croix Prep rises from 'rec program' softball to conference champs

 

 

Intriguing is how Frank Roth describes his St. Croix Prep Academy softball team.

“They don’t all eat, sleep and breathe softball,” Roth said.

Yet the Lions won the Minnesota Christian Athletic Association title outright, losing just one conference game this spring.

As softball playoffs begin in earnest this week, the Lions are contenders in Class 2A, Section 4. They earned the No. 4 seed and host No. 13 seed St. Paul Academy at 4:30 p.m. Monday.

Roth, who arrived in 2017, counted 17 players who have made the three-season climb from being a sub-.500 team. Back in December, Roth asked his players to list their season goals. The wants included having fun, learning, winning the conference and reaching the state tournament.

Roth said he and assistant coach Mike Koch arrived at the Stillwater-based college preparatory school to find “softball had been more a rec program. School administration wanted to make athletics as competitive as the academics. It’s one thing for the administration to say it but it’s another thing if the kids want it. They chose to learn how to play and how to become a competitive team.”

Roth lauded his team’s depth and interchangeable difference makers.

Senior Bailey Erlandson plays shortstop and center field, switched from a right-handed hitter to a left-handed bunter, and bats about .600 from the leadoff spot. She will play softball at Coe College in Iowa.

Batting second is senior Elise Amerongen, a transfer from Hill-Murray and one of the Lions’ three captains.

Madyson Marx, who hits in the No. 3 spot, used her bowling experience to develop into a solid pitcher. The junior is also a captain.

Sophomore Sydney Erlandson has belted five home runs and leads the team in RBI.

Eighth-grader Annika Burquest is the other starting pitcher. She and Marx have split the team’s 14 victories.

Roth, who arrived at St. Croix Prep after 14 seasons and 198 victories at Mounds View, is most impressed by his players’ character.

“After every practice they come up to Mike and I and say, ‘Thank you for coaching us today,’ ” Roth said. “They are not an entitled group. They work for what they get and appreciate the effort that goes into it.”

Two of the Lions’ biggest victories in May were testaments to their work ethic. Down 5-4 at Lester Prairie, a place the Lions had never won, they rallied to win 6-5 in the seventh inning. Trailing 4-1 at Maranatha Christian Academy, the second-best team in the conference, St. Croix Prep exploded for five runs in the fifth inning and 10 runs in the seventh inning to win 16-4.

After a regular season-ending victory at Spectrum High School in Elk River, Roth congratulated his players on accomplishing their goal of winning the conference.

“Then I reminded them their next goal was to get to state,” he said. “That’s how they want to be remembered.”

Former Gopher, Wild hockey players chosen to lead Stillwater hockey

Earlier this winter, Mira Jalosuo and Greg Zanon were coaches in the Stillwater youth ranks on opposite sides of a split ice practice session. Months later, they became varsity head coaches at the high school level.

Jalosuo, a Finland-born defender who played college hockey at Minnesota, and Zanon, a Canada-born defenseman who played professional hockey for the Wild, are eager to co-author a new ice age in Stillwater.

“When he got the job, I called to congratulate him,” said Jalosuo, named in April to lead the girls' program. “I know both of us want to support each other and make Stillwater hockey one community.”

“We’re fighting for the same purpose,” Zanon said.

Both coaches seek to make their respective programs thrive. The Stillwater girls’ program won state titles in 2007 and 2009. The boys broke through and reached state tournaments in 2014 and 2016.

Both rookie head coaches plan to put their teams in the state tournament mix. And they have a similar philosophy on how best to get the job done.

“My roots as a Finnish hockey player taught me to be gritty,” said Jalosuo, 30, who won two NCAA titles at Minnesota and a bronze medal with Finland at the 2018 Olympics. “That means being willing to block shots, backchecking and outworking other teams.”

Zanon, 38, who embodied that style in 493 NHL games played from 2005-13, said, “We want to be a skating team that’s hard-nosed. We want teams to hate having to play us.”

Zanon, his wife and three children live in Lake Elmo. While some of the Stillwater hockey parents unsuccessfully lobbied for Zanon’s services, middle daughter Alayna nudged her father to get back on the ice. Helping out with the 10-year-olds led to an after-practice meeting with Matt Doman, boys’ varsity coach. That led to Zanon volunteering to help the varsity for part of the 2017-18 season, which turned into an assistant role last winter.

“This was an opportunity to get back into the team atmosphere of hockey,” Zanon said. “I don’t know that it was so much wanting to coach. But high school is a good age. You can give them as much as they can absorb and you see them blossom. And when does a job at an elite program like Stillwater going to open up?”

Jalosuo knew Eric St. Martin, director of girls’ hockey within the Stillwater Area Hockey Association, and got involved with skills training and coaching. Last season, her U12A team posted a 42-6-2 record.

Coaching the varsity means Jalosuo gets to simplify her hockey life. Last winter, while coaching in the youth ranks, she also served as assistant coach at both Wayzata, a top-10 high school program, and Hamline University, which reached the NCAA Division III championship game.

“I was all over the place,” she said with a laugh.

Restoring Stillwater’s place among the state’s elite ignites Jalosuo’s competitive instincts.

“I like the pressure to be successful in order to keep your job,” she said. “I was the same way as a player. I like the challenge.”