The voices, razzing and cajoling and speckled with laughter, are constant. The players seem to be in a perpetual state of motion, filling in gaps so typical to softball practices with infectious energy.
Bloomington Jefferson takes the business of softball seriously. And that business is fun.
Before a recent game over Chanhassen, one of their chief rivals in the Metro West Conference, the Jaguars readied themselves with an impromptu dance-off. Then they went out and routed the Storm 12-1.
“We are always laughing, like we’re a big family,” senior left-fielder Emily Carr said with, of course, a laugh. “It’s just so much fun to be a part of this team. We all feel like it’s such an honor to be a part of this team.”
If success breeds happiness, it’s no wonder the Jaguars are a giddy bunch. They’ve made it to four consecutive Class 3A state tournaments, winning the consolation championship each time. (More on that spirit-dampener later.)
They are ranked No. 2 in the most recent state coaches association poll. In their foray into the new Metro West conference, they have an 11-0 record (16-1 overall) through Sunday. Heck, even their lone loss, to Eastview in the semifinals of the Great 8 Invitational on less than two weeks ago, inspires positivity.
“We’ve been winning, but we’ve lost now, too,” said senior center fielder Kate Deming, a co-captain along with Carr and junior shortstop Linnea Carlyle. “Now that the undefeated season thing is out of the way, we’re not worrying about that anymore. It was a reality check for us.”
In what has become a team trademark of sorts, Jefferson bounced back in the tournament, defeating No. 1-ranked Maple Grove — albeit without the Crimson’s star pitcher Sydney Smith — to finish in third place. It was a familiar, and not altogether welcome, scenario. Not getting out of the first round of the state tournament four years running is getting old, despite their ability to finish strong.
“We’ve been getting closer, but last year was especially hard,” said Carr, a member of all of those teams. “For so many of the girls I’d been playing with the whole time, that was their last chance.”
While 2015 is different season with a different team, the similarities to seasons past are unmistakable. Five starters from the 2014 team graduated, including ace Krista Flugstad, but here they are, playing with a strong chance to reach the state tournament again.
Carlyle, a shortstop with a strong arm made stronger by her rapid release, said she thinks the overall strength of the program is the reason Jefferson hasn’t endured any backsliding.
“We’ve seen all of the older girls do it so we know that we can,” she said. “And losing in the [quarterfinals of the] state tournament makes us want to work harder just to finish what those other girls started.”
For most of the team, the high school season is just a portion of their time together. Jim Hanson, in his second year at the helm of the high school team, is a familiar face from his tenure as coach of Jefferson’s summer team, the Clutch Hitters. Between high school and club seasons, many players spend up to five months a year playing together. That familiarity shows on and off the diamond.
“This year, everyone is contributing,” Deming said. “One through nine, you can depend on people to get a hit. And in the field, we know we’re not going to mess up. We’re going to make the play. We trust each other.”
Said catcher Anne Miller: “You know how on some teams, teammates see each other in the halls but don’t talk? That’s not us. We’re all such great friends.”
That level confidence has helped resolve the one preseason area of concern: pitching.
Junior Rachel Evavold and sophomore Ashley Neuenfeldt, both of whom had little varsity experience before this year, have exceeded expectations. Evavold, 8-0 with a 1.16 ERA, credited the bond of the players in the field for helping her settle in. If not for a rough outing against Eastview, Neuenfeldt’s statistics would be even better.
“Our defense has been so big this year,” Evavold said. “It helps knowing they’ll pick me up if someone hits the ball hard.”
Then there is the matter of the state tournament. The Jaguars have to get there first before they can finally end their first-round jinx. That’s a goal they take seriously ... for about 60 seconds.
“We can have a serious moment for about a minute, but somehow we always turn it into a joke,” Carlyle said. “Our best element is our team chemistry. We have so much fun together, it seems unreal.”