FL runs into hot pitcher in first round
After breezing through the regular season and sectional tournament, the playing field finally evened out for the Forest Lake softball team at the state tournament.
Forest Lake entered the eight-team bracket ranked No. 2 with a record of 23-1 and hoped to take the final step after placing second in 2011. The tourney, held last Thursday and Friday in North Mankato, played out as few expected, though. The Rangers dropped two of three games to finish sixth, while unranked Stillwater beat No. 1 Maple Grove in the title game.
The first day of play was marred by a two-hour rain delay, but the clouds broke as Forest Lake opened its first-round game against Orono. The 2008 Class AA champions were making their first Class AAA state appearance but came in matching Forest Lake’s record of 23-1.
It was clear from early on that the Spartans would not roll over. Junior Sam Hartmann struck out two while retiring the Rangers in order in the top of the first inning. The Section 6 champs then took advantage of a close call and some uncharacteristic defense to take an early lead.
Orono’s Madison Arends bunted with one out and was deemed safe on a close play at first base which Forest Lake disputed. After Arends was called safe, she advanced to second base when first baseman Maggie Forsell and pitcher Michelle LaCasse did not connect on the relay back to the mound.
On the next play, Ranger second baseman Shannon Nelson fielded a grounder and tried to get the lead runner but her throw to third base was late. Clean-up hitter Mackenzie Williams then singled up the middle to drive in a run. LaCasse got out of the jam with no further damage, but the tone was set.
Coach Angie Ryan was surprised to see her team come out flat.
“There were some things I guess I didn’t anticipate especially since we had a lot more experience than Orono or a lot of the other teams,” she said. “Our whole thing was ‘Relax and do what you have been doing.’ I don’t know for sure where those couple of issues came from.”
Forest Lake put a runner in scoring position with one out in the second, but Hartmann dialed up two strikeouts to end the threat. Her cushion then increased as Orono struck for two more runs in its half of the frame. Hartmann led off with a double past left fielder Mikayla Watters and scored two outs later on a double by lead-off hitter Shelby Early. Arends followed with a bleeder through the right side of the infield to make it 3-0.
Ryan pulled LaCasse after the next batter singled. Reliever Micah McGuiness was greeted with a soft single to load the bases, but she induced a grounder to get out of the jam.
The Spartans would not score again, but Forest Lake’s offense had to scrap for every baserunner as Hartmann successfully tested the limits of the outside corner of the strike zone. Emily Lindstrom’s single with two outs in the fifth inning marked the team’s first hit of the contest. Lindstrom would be stranded and the Rangers went down in order in the sixth.
Dana Mogren put together a great at-bat to lead off the seventh inning and it ended in a single down the right-field line. Clean-up hitter Jenn Zidar then made the best contact of any Ranger swing all game, but her deep fly ball sailed right to the Orono center fielder. Hartmann quickly closed out the two-hitter and the Spartans prevailed 3-0.
McGuiness allowed four hits in 4.1 innings of scoreless relief. Arends, Early and Williams each had two hits and drove in a run for Orono. The Spartans went on to fall 3-0 to Maple Grove in the semifinals. They beat Mankato East 5-1 in the third-place game.
Rangers 11, Hornets 0 (six innings)
The Rangers had planned to play two games on the first day but the late start pushed their second game back to Friday as the seniors had to hurry home for graduation. Friday morning brought an 11-0 victory in a consolation semifinal against Big Lake. The Section 8 champs entered the tourney with a record of 14-7 and were coming off a 7-0 loss to Maple Grove in the opening round.
The game remained scoreless for four innings before Forest Lake exploded for three runs in the fifth and eight in the sixth.
“We got some bunts down, they threw the ball around a little and all of a sudden we just put together a couple of big innings,” Ryan said.
Watters and Lindstrom each singled and scored in the fifth, and an error made all three of the runs unearned.
Mogren singled and tripled in the sixth, and McGuiness, Lindstrom and Nelson added singles. A throwing error allowed three runs to score.
McGuiness pitched the first five innings of the six-inning shutout, allowing two hits and striking out four.
Jaguars 5, Rangers 3
Bloomington Jefferson, which was ranked No. 1 for much of the season, awaited Forest Lake in the consolation finals. The Section 3 champs entered the tournament with a record of 17-2. They fell 1-0 to Mankato East in the first round, then beat Farmington 4-3 in eight innings.
Again, it took several innings for a team to break into the scoring column. A baserunning mistake cost the Rangers the chance to take the lead in the fifth inning, and the Jaguars took advantage with a home run in the top of the sixth. Forest Lake came right back to tie it with a two-out rally. The heart of the order came through, as Mogren doubled and went on to score on a single by Zidar.
The Jaguars took control with a four-run seventh inning. McGuiness retired the first batter but was chased after four straight hits. Bloomington Jefferson made it 5-1 with a two-out double.
The Rangers made things interesting in their final time up to bat. Lindstrom led off with a homer to cut the deficit to three. Two outs brought up the top of the order, and Natalie Wright kept the game alive with a single. Nelson and Mogren followed with singles, making it 5-3, but Zidar flied out to left field to end the game.
Ryan felt the loss was easier to swallow than the first one of the tournament.
“Even though we lost it felt okay because we did play very well,” she said.
Mogren went 3-4 and McGuiness added two hits.
Year in review
Ryan said that over the course of five straight state tournaments, she has learned that talent alone does not usually win out.
“Things have to go your way a bit at the state tournament and it just didn’t,” she said. “l’m not upset. I know everybody did their best.
“…You have to feel good with the pressure on you and I’m not sure, all our kids, if that’s how they felt. I’m not sure how you get everyone to step up in those situations.”
The team can look back fondly on a special year, Ryan added. The Rangers went 24-3, won the Suburban East Conference title outright for the first time since 1990 and claimed their fifth consecutive Section 7 crown. Their five-year run at state is the longest current streak in Minnesota’s two biggest classes.
“We had an awesome season,” she said. “24-3 was outstanding, so I can’t ask for anything more.”
Departing seniors include Forsell, McGuiness, Nelson and Andrea Mogren. Nelson will continue her softball career at Winona State, while McGuiness and Mogren will both play at St. Scholastica.