by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
The Elk River Elks conquered one old nemesis in Section 7AAA softball Monday, then got foiled by another.
Anna Pipenhagen and the Elks knocked off top-seeded Brainerd 5-0 in the quarterfinals of the four-team, double-elimination tournament at Brainerd.
However, Jaiden Lund and third-seeded Big Lake stymied the Elks 2-1 in the upper-bracket semifinals later in the day, ending a seven-game win streak by the Elks.
That means the Elks have to go 3-0 on Wednesday and (they hope) Thursday against those same teams to reach “state.”
“We really had some energy on the field in that first game,” said coach Stacy Sheetz. “Then I don’t know what happened, we lost some of our intensity.”
Brainerd ended the Elks’ 2010 and 2011 seasons at sectionals, beating them a total of three times. The 2009 Elks was the squad that won the state championship, but in 2007 and 2008 Big Lake was 4-0 against the Elks and ousted them both years. The Elks beat them twice in the 2009 playoffs. Now they’re looking up at the Hornets again.
Big Lake drubbed Rocori 10-0 in the other quarterfinal, and Brainerd thumped Rocori 11-3 in the lower bracket after losing to the Elks, to earn a rematch.
On Wednesday, the Elks (13-11) face No. 7 ranked Brainerd (20-2) at 4 p.m., with the winner taking on Big Lake (12-6) in the finals at 6 p.m. If Big Lake wins, it’s over. If not, the second game of the finals will be played Thursday at 5 p.m.
Elk River’s Michaela Bruns continued to pound the ball, going 4-for-6 with three doubles, a walk, and three runs in the two games. In four sub-section and section games, the sophomore third baseman has 10 hits in 14 at-bats, including a homer and six doubles, with nine RBI.
Bruns, after a big freshman year (.380, three homers, 18 RBI), was hitting a quieter .324 this season before catching fire in the playoffs, raising her average to .448 with 19 RBI. Asked if she’s doing anything different, Bruns shook her head. “It’s really just confidence,” she said.
Sheetz agreed: “She got her confidence back after getting a couple hits. I’m happy for her. She works hard and puts in extra time outside practice.”
The Elks defense continues to sparkle. They’ve made just one error in four playoff games.
“We’ve been fielding well, and our offense has been solid except that last game when it fizzled a little,” said Sheetz. “Otherwise we are doing really well and I can’t complain.”
The Elks beat Apollo 6-2 and Alexandria 12-2 last Friday in Alexandria.
Both games Monday were interrupted by rain. A deluge hit during the top of the first of the Elk-Brainered game, causing a 90-minute delay with the field needing to be cleared of standing water. The sun shone bright for the rest of that game, but rain fell hard again in the bottom of the first inning of the Elk-Big Lake, causing a delay of about 45 minutes.
Elk River 5, Brainerd 0
Brainerd had a 19-1 record coming into this game largely due to the furious left arm of senior Nikki Anderson. The Warriors had yielded just 19 total runs in 20 games, with 12 shutouts, including six in a row.
The Elks did not hit Anderson hard except for back-to-back doubles by Bruns and Bethani Athey in the fourth inning that gave them a 1-0 lead.
But the fifth-seeded team was able to break it open with four runs in the sixth on just one hit, an RBI single by Austyn Beese, along with aggressive base-running and just getting the bat on the ball.
Pipenhagen gave up six singles and no walks, striking out eight, as the Elks handed Brainerd its first home loss since late in the 2010 season.
The soph righthander also grabbed an overhead line drive by Chelsie Manton with two runners aboard in the fifth, saving a run. Another big catch was made by left-fielder Ali Krohn, diving to snag Nikki DeChaine’s sinking liner with two outs and a runner on second, in the third inning.
“I could not have been happier with the girls that game,” said Sheetz. “We had intensity and I think we shocked Brainerd a little bit by being able to get the bat on the ball as much as we did.”
Anderson gave up just four hits while walking three and hitting one, and struck out nine.
The lefthanded Bruns ripped a double to left-center in the first when Erickson struck out the other three batters.
But when Bruns did the same in the fourth, the righthanded Athey followed with a scorching double of her own to left-center two pitches later, sending home Bruns and ending Brainerd’s shutout streak at about 45 innings.
In the sixth, Brainerd got itself in hot water and couldn’t get out. It started as Anderson walked Bruns leading off, on a 3-2 pitch, and wild-pitched her to second, after which Athey’s bouncer to third was booted by the infielder, with Athey hustling to second. Beese knocked a grounder through the hole to left, scoring Bruns.
After that, Brainerd twice tried to throw out runners at home on little nubbers, but both Athey and then Beese beat the throws to the plate, with Courtney Jensen and Pipenhagen getting the RBI’s. Anderson then wild-pitched Jensen home, before getting a K and ground out to end the uprising.
Bailey O’Hotto was 2-for-4 for Brainerd.
Big Lake 2, Elks 1
Jaiden Lund owned this game. Big Lake’s confident little freshman righthander not only quelled the Elks bats — five-hitter, no walks, four strikeouts — but scored both runs after hitting a single and double.
“We didn’t make adjustments to her different speeds very well,” said Sheetz, “and pretty soon we were pressing to get hits.”
Pipenhagen had a shaky start but finished with a four-hitter and three walks, striking out nine. Unfortunately all three walks came in the first inning after Lund’s leadoff single, forcing home the first run. Kate Smith got the base-loaded walk for the RBI.
Pipenhagen has walked only two other batters in 28 innings during the playoffs.
“Anna had a phenomenal first game, and not a bad second game either, after a rough first inning,” said Sheetz. “The first inning was hard for her. It was a different umpire and he had a different strike zone, and that throws you off a little.”
The Elks pulled even in the fourth when Bruns bounced a single up the middle, took second on a ground out, and scored when Beese lofted a long, high double to left field.
They had a great chance to take the lead in the fifth when Jess Neuman lined a single up the middle, Jayme Langebehn blooped one, and they wound up on second and third with one out, and Bruns and Athey coming up.
But Lund completely took over at that point. She jammed the dangerous Bruns and got her to foul out, then retired Athey on a grounder to third. She led off the last of the fifth with sizzling double to left-center and scored on a similar two-bagger by Jenna Stein for a 2-1 lead, then retired the Elks 1-2-3 in both the sixth and seventh to close it out.
Bruns was 2-for-3, as were Big Lake’s Lund and Oashaja Dobie.