When Anoka softball coach Toni Jesinoski heads to the third base coaching box each inning, she does so with a pocket full of Starbursts.
When a runner reaches third, she tosses her a Starburst. For a home run, it’s two.
The simple tradition serves as a motivational tool for the Tornadoes. With a 17-0-1 record as of Sunday, it seems to be working.
“Sometimes if we’re not hitting well or [they] just seem a little down,” Jesinoski said, “they’ll holler ‘We need a Starburst inning,’ so it kind of seems like something very small to get them enticed to get to third base. It keeps them motivated and excited.”
As the regular season concludes Wednesday with a game at Class 3A’s top-ranked Maple Grove, Anoka appears motivated for a second consecutive trip to the state tournament. The Tornadoes finished third in Class 3A in 2014.
“There’s been some rough games like being down early, but I think just thinking about last year has motivated us to come through at the end of the game,” junior first baseman Morgan Paaverud said.
With a bulk of the roster back, making it to state seems like a realistic goal.
“It’s just kind of expected that we continue the tradition considering we lost two seniors, very pivotal seniors … but we were able to have the younger athletes step up,” Jesinoski said.
Though it lost pitcher Megan Lindenfelser and catcher Dayja Rosario, the team has a young core. Sophomores represent the largest class on the squad, but the team’s four upperclassmen have provided valuable leadership.
Sophomore Amber Elliott slid into Lindenfelser’s role as the ace of the staff. Jesinoski said she’s been doing a “marvelous job.”
“I knew that I had to work through everything and become better,” Elliott said.
Before the season, Elliott set a goal of striking out 100 batters. Through Sunday, she was already above 140 through 79⅔ innings. She’s also a team leader at the plate, hitting .500 with 17 RBI.
“Last year, she didn’t get much playing time because of our seniors, but I think she took a huge step and has led our team to a lot of these wins,” Paaverud said.
Fellow sophomore LeeAnna Nevin had been catching Elliott both this year and last before suffering an injury this season. Now, Kaitlyn Backman has caught her and their chemistry has helped the team.
“We’ve known each other since we were little,” Elliott said. “… She comes over because we’re next-door neighbors and we talk about what pitches I should throw and where they should be.”.
Besides pitcher and catcher, the team’s core remained the same. The Tornadoes have gone from being an underdog to a targeted team. Finding success isn’t always easy.
“We sometimes don’t practice like a returning state-bound team so we need to just make sure that we continue to be focused and motivated to want to continue for that goal,” Jesinoski said.
But focus in games has been sharp, as evidenced by the team’s success.
As of Sunday, the Tornadoes had outscored opponents 122-28. They bounced back from their one tie with a 10-0 victory in their next game.
With four starters hitting above .400, that type of offensive prowess isn’t exactly surprising.
And now, the Tornadoes hope it can carry into the postseason, where they hope to advance further than they did last year.
“We finally got the feel for [state] and learned that it’s going to take a lot more work to get higher up than we did,” junior second baseman Makayla Zimmer said. “And this year I think we’ve been putting in that work that we need to get there.”
Betsy Helfand is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.