Thanks to the success of softball at the University of Minnesota, the sport has rarely had as much time in the local spotlight as it has recently. Perfect timing, too, because the high school section playoffs hit their stride this week.
Here are five things you need to know:
1. Chanhassen should repeat. The defending Class 4A champs are 19-1 going into the Section 2, 4A playoffs and have been the state’s best team since day one, outscoring opponents 173-13. They have three Division I pitchers (Mary Beth Olson, Taylor Manno and Maddie Schwartz), a rock-’em, sock-’em batting order and the swagger needed to deal with season-long pressure.
2. But it’s not a given. Chanhassen’s nemesis has long been Bloomington Jefferson, the only team to beat the Storm this season. The two teams split a pair of games, but Jefferson, which is seeded No. 3 in Section 2, 4A, has won five of the last six. And don’t overlook No. 2-seeded Prior Lake. The South Suburban Conference champs are 18-2 overall and pitcher Kailey Ahlstrom has been terrific (14-2, 0.89 ERA, 156 strikeouts).
3. Arms take over. Softball has always been a pitcher’s game, but it becomes even more important in the postseason. It’s no surprise that the top teams in the state are also the teams with the best pitchers. Prior Lake has Ahlstrom; Anoka has Amber Elliott and Molly Swenson; Farmington has Maddie Muelken and Becca Silber; Woodbury throws Ashley Mickschl; New Prague has a budding star in sophomore Mia Kraimer; and Annandale, in Class 2A, has a strikeout artist in junior Sarah Johnson. Conversely, Forest Lake has been a top-10 team all season, but the loss of pitcher Megan Baniecke to a concussion in early May is a crucial blow.
4. Don’t trust the QRF. The QRF (Quality Results Formula) is used to determine a team’s overall strength and as a foundation for section seedings. It’s a great piece when used as part of a larger tool chest for gauging a team, but it has it’s flaws. For example, Chanhassen is No. 7 in the current Class 4A QRF, a ranking reflective of its membership in Metro West Conference, which is not considered among the top leagues in metro. Eagan, which has lost five times — twice to Prior Lake — is one spot ahead of Chanhassen at No. 6.
5. Left out. This is nothing new, but some very good teams are going to get left out of the state tournament because they reside in a deep, tough section. We’ve already talked about the depth in Class 4A, Section 2, but there are similar situations in other large-school brackets. Section 1 has Farmington and New Prague, and Section 3 has Park of Cottage Grove and Eagan. Section 4 looks like a three-way battle between Woodbury, North St. Paul and Stillwater, as does Section 7 with Anoka, Blaine and Forest Lake.