by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Elk River softball picked up a couple big wins Monday. The first one came on the field as the No. 2 seeded Elks beat No. 3 Big Lake 4-1 at home in Section 8AAA.
Then came the news from up north that No. 1 Bemidji had lost to No. 4 Brainerd 7-3 — which gives Elk River a home game Wednesday against Brainerd, rather than a 200-mile trip to Bemidji to face the Lumberjacks.
“We host Wednesday … since the winners bracket only has one game, it is at the high seed between the two!!” an elated coach Stacey Sheetz e-mailed to the Star News.
The section has a confusing setup this year and many observers, including the coach and the Star News reporter, was under the impression that Bemidji would host the rest of the tournament by virtue of being top seed. As it turns out, Bemidji will host three other games Wednesday, but the Elks get a home game because they’re a higher seed than Brainerd.
However, if Bemidji survives its lower-bracket games Wednesday, they’ll host the conclusion of the tournament Thursday. Got that? At least, we think that’s what will happen. But for sure, the Elks (17-3) will host Brainerd (12-5) on Wednesday at 4 p.m.
Against Big Lake, the Elks managed only five hits off Kelli Poffenberger, but two of them were crushers.
No. 3 hitter Michaela Bruns poled a two-run homer in the first inning as the ball hit the top of the fence and bounced over. Marie Deaton was on base with a single. “That was an outside pitch and I reached out and pulled it,” said Bruns, who has two homers and 18 RBI.
No. 4 hitter Kathi Opsahl drilled a two-run double with two outs in the third inning, just beyond the reach of the retreating center fielder. Opsahl is hitting .527 with 27 RBI.
About Poffenberger, Bruns assessed: “She threw a lot of outside pitches and hit spots really well. A lot of them were right where we should have hit them, but we were getting under the ball.”
Sheetz felt fortunate to put four runs on the board against Poffenberger.
“I have a feeling we are going to see them again, and I hope we hit the ball better and make their defense work more,” said Sheetz. “We were lucky we got those two hits. Thank God they (Bruns and Opsdahl) were there.”
Elk River right-hander Anna Pipenhagen gave up six hits, struck out nine and walked three. Big Lake got on the board when catcher Jenna Stein crushed one in the sixth inning for a line-drive homer to left.
Pipenhagen (14-3, 1.63 ERA) pitched out of a couple jams, one of them with an alert defensive play by herself. The Hornets had runners at second and third in the fourth inning after a double off the fence by Sam Kuhlow (the only player in the game with two hits). Left-fielder Opsahl pounced on the ball and made a strong throw to hold the runner at third.
Pipenhagen got a strikeout for the second out, then foiled a Hornet base running play for the third out. Kuhlow strayed far off the base, probably trying to draw rundown play to let the other runner score, but Pipenhagen sprinted over and tagged Kuhlow before the lead runner crossed the plate.
“I’m not sure what they were doing there,” said Pipenhagen, “but … thank you!”
Neither team made an error. Elk third baseman Ali Krohn made a couple nice throw-outs with runners on base, and outfielders Opsahl and Jaime Langbehn ran under well-hit balls in the seventh to close the game.
The other Elk hits were by Langbehn (double) and Krohn.
The Elks probably thought they would face Jaiden Lund, a sophomore who beat them twice in sectionals last year, but Hornet coach Kim Bowen started Poffenberger and put Lund in center. Poffenberger walked two and struck out three.
“We thought we would give them a different look today because they have seen Jaiden a few times,” said Bowen. “Kelli pitched well. We floated a couple (pitches) in the (strike) zone that they hit at a good time for them. Other than that, she pitched great, which she’s been doing all season.”
Big Lake was section champion last year. This year they are 15-8. The Hornets were missing a six-year starter at shortstop (possible concussion) in this game and had to move some people around.
“I thought we played pretty well considering,” said Bowen. “”We have been hitting the ball pretty good this year. We started slow today but started sticking them at the end … I think we will probably see them (Elks) again. It tends to happen that way.”
While Brainerd and Elk River duel in Elk River for a berth in the finals on Wednesday, Big Lake (15-8) will take on No. 9 St. Cloud Apollo (7-15) while Bemidji (17-4) faces No. 3 Alexandria (17-5) in Bemidji, both 4 p.m. The two winners will duel at 6 p.m. On Thursday the survivor of those games will face the Brainerd-Elk River loser, and the winner of that game advances to the finals needing to win two straight.