by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
“There is no defense against a home run,” wrote a former home run king in his memoir, “Roger Maris at Bat,” many years ago. A coach like Stacey Sheetz might add that it takes more than homers to win ballgames, but they’re awfully nice to have.
The Elk River softball team will play for the state championship Friday after socking three round-trippers at the state tournament Thursday, one by Kathi Opsahl that saved their skins in 2-1 win over Orono, and two more by Michaela Bruns and Jayme Langbehn that padded their lead in a 9-3 conquest of Forest Lake.
“I’ll take a home run over a bunt any day,” beamed Sheetz after her team botched three bunts against Orono but won anyway at Casswell Park in North Mankato.
The Elks also rode two more pitching gems from Anna Pipenhagen and committed just one error in 14 innings as they rolled into the finals.
“I am so excited for the girls,” said Sheetz. “They deserve it. They have worked so hard.”
The Elks (20-3) will duel Prior Lake (17-3) for the Class 3A championship Friday at 1 p.m.
“I’m ready! I can’t wait!” said Pipenhagen, who gave up 10 hits and struck out 13 in her 14-inning workday.
The Elks’ three homers gives them 16 for the season and the individuals who connected Thursday have most of them. Opsahl and Langbehn have five each and Bruns three.
Sheetz and the Elks have won five consecutive state tournament games. They took the whole thing their last appearance, 2009, also at Casswell Park.
“This is a lucky place for us,” Sheetz acknowledged. “I hope we can get one more tomorrow.”
Elks 2, Orono 1
Opsahl delivered her thunderbolt leading off the bottom of the seventh against Orono lefty Samantha Hartman, who had been blowing the Elks away up to that point, and tied the score 1-1.
The senior cleanup batter jumped on a riser and steered it high and deep, clearing the fence in left-center by about 10 feet. Overjoyed, she broke into a little Kent Hrbek-style arms-raised home run trot while rounding second.
“I went up there thinking I have to do my job, I have to do something for my team,” said Opsahl, who delivered one of the biggest hits in Elk sports history. “When I saw it go over, I just threw my arms up! I started crying when I saw the team (waiting at home plate).”
Before Hartman could regain her groove, Langbehn followed with a line drive to left-center that short-hopped against the fence for a double.
Langbehn was at third base with two out when the Elks got a big break as the Orono first baseman pulled her foot off the base stretching for the throw on a grounder by Courtney Jenson. The ump’s palms went down, Langbehn scored and the Elks were suddenly celebrating a victory while the stunned Spartans trudged off the field.
Before the seventh, the Elks had three singles and nine strikeouts against Hartman, and only a couple hard-hit balls. Hartman was 11-0 with a 0.56 ERA.
“She was throwing rise balls, outside. She had good pitches,” said Langbehn. “I hit one high and a little outside. I got on top of it.”
Pipenhagen, junior right-hander who was the featured pick in the Star-Tribune’s metro athletes of the week on Tuesday, fired a five-hitter with one walk and nine strikeouts.
Orono (20-4) got its run in the fourth when All-Metro shortstop Rebekah Smith notched her 55th RBI of the season, slicing a single to right after Ellie Wachman singled and was bunted to second.
Pipenhagen wiggled out of a base-loaded jam in the sixth, then gave up a leadoff double to Hartman in the seventh but stranded her at third, keeping the Elks within striking distance — and strike they did.
Opsahl, Jenson and Wachman were all 2-for-3 in the game. The scorer gave Jenson a hit when the baseman pulled her foot, even though the throw was in time.
Elks 9, Forest Lake 3
The Elks didn’t wait until the seventh inning in the afternoon game. They rapped three hits for two runs in the first inning, went on to collect 14 hits in the game including two homers, and led comfortably throughout.
“We got our hitting back,” said Langbehn, who slammed a three-run homer and went 2-for-4. “I think we were super nervous the first game.”
“I think we played at the top of our game,” said Pipenhagen, who had a five-hitter and posted her 18th win.
“We played like we used to in this game,” said Sheetz, referring to a mid-season stretch when the Elks were pounding everyone and hitting over .400 collectively.
“We knew Forest Lake would battle all the way. We beat a really good team and that feels good. Our girls kept going and going.”
Marie Deaton and Bruns doubled back-to-back in the first. Bruns got the RBI and scored on a single by Jess Neuman off Rachel Harrington, who was pulled after a third of an inning. Michelle LaCasse finished for the Rangers.
The Elks picked up two more in the third when Opsahl, Langbehn, Pipenhagen and Jenson singled, the last two for RBI’s. Jenson’s was a little infield bloop.
Bruns smashed a line-drive homer to right-center in the fourth and Jenson singled home a run in the fifth, making it 6-1.
For Forest Lake (23-3), Emilie Antony, Taylor Shortly and Kalyn Tilton punched RBI hits and the Rangers were within 6-3 in the sixth.
Undaunted, the Elks broke it open when Langbehn laid into a fastball down the middle for the three-run dinger to right center in the last of the sixth. On base with singles were Bruns and Opsahl, the other two home run hitters for the day.
Bruns had three hits and Opsahl, Neuman, Langbehn, Pipenhagen and Jenson two each. Bruns, Opsahl, Newman and Langbehn each scored twice.
Pipenhagen finished with a five-hitter, four walks, and four strikeouts, allowing three earned runs, in posting her 18th win.
“Anna got a little tired at the end but pulled through, and that’s what I love about Anna,” said Bruns, her catcher.