by Bruce Strand, Sports Editor
The defending state champion Elk River Elks are not the only softball team in District 728 anticipating a strong 2014 season.
The Elks return all but two starters from the unranked team that captured the Class 3A title last June. Unlike the Elks 2009 state champion team that graduated heavily, the current Elks have the big target on their backs.
“We are very excited about the season,” coach Stacey Sheetz said. “It’s a different way to approach a season, with everyone gunning for you. We are trying to make the girls understand to not give in to the pressure and just have fun with it, while working very hard, too.”
Meanwhile, Zimmerman was 16-6 with a young lineup last year and could be a force in Class 2A, and Rogers, a Class 3A team, has everyone back from an 11-10 season including a budding ace hurler.
The Elks don’t play Rogers or Zimmerman but did scrimmage the Royals indoor recently and won by just 1-0.
“A lot of the players (on the three teams) work together in clinics and camps, and some play together in the summer,” Sheetz said. “They like to keep track how the other teams are doing and they tell me about it, too.”
Gone from the Elks are two luminaries who played in the state all-star series (Austyn Beese and Kathi Opsahl) but the rest of the gang is back, starting with pitcher Anna Pipenhagen (1.29 ERA, 184 strikeouts in 146 innings) for her third year on the stripe.
The hard-hitting lineup includes outfielder Jaime Langbehn (.467, 28 RBIs, five homers), catcher Michaela Bruns (.447, 20 RBIs, three homers), infielders Jess Neuman (.342), Courtey Jensen (.333) and Ali Krohn (.284), designated hitter Marie Deaton (.316), and Pipenhagen (.315, 21 RBIs).
The Elks won’t be thinking about state for a while and in the meantime they have a major undertaking.
“We have never won out conference,” said Sheetz, “and we have not beaten Maple Grove twice, ever, so those are goals.” Sheetz added that there are several other strong Northwest Suburban Conference teams but the girls are especially keyed up for the Crimson.
Last year, Maple Grove beat the Elks 6-5 and 2-1 in conference, then won a different section and placed fourth at state. Maple Grove is 9-1 against the Elks the past five years. And the Crimson return seven starters, including a D-1 caliber pitcher.
Maple Grove coach Jim Koltes aid he voted the Elks No. 1 in the coaches preseason poll, adding the he was surprised when told that they’ve beaten the Elks nine of the last 10.
“They still have the one thing we don’t — a state championship, two to be exact —and we have two state runner-ups,” Koltes said. “Stacey and her staff do an outstanding job. I would say both teams love playing each other because the games have a playoff and state game feel to them.”
Zimmerman was 16-6 last year, including two section wins. The Thunder bring back five starters, including their all-conference battery of senior catcher Gabby Antolak (.459, 21 RBIs last year) and freshman pitcher Ashley Pool (2.57 ERA, 90 strikeouts in 79.7 innings as an eighth-grader). Others are infielders Maddie Roisum and Carlie Lage and outfielder Kayla Christopherson.
“We are still a very young team,” coach Emily Zahn said, “so if we are able to jump that hurdle and rely on our veteran leadership, this team could make a substantial postseason run.”
Becker, always strong, is ZHS’s main obstacle in conference, but the Bulldogs were moved out of the Thunder’s section this year. “So that really opens it up who will be top dog,” Zahn said.
Zimmerman lost two of their better athletes as Ashley Ryding switched to track and Abby Canton will concentrate on hockey.
‘At Rogers, Katelyn Kemmetmueller posted a 1.47 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 109 innings as a freshman and was named Mississippi 8 pitcher of the year. The Royals have four all-conference back: Kemmetmueller, outfielders Madi Anderson (.417, 19 runs) and Olivia Olson (.406, 14 steals) and infielder Ellie Anderson (.358, 13 RBIs).
“We lost only one senior who played part time, and we have gained another pitcher,” coach Jerry Bruns said, referring to his freshman daughter Melea, younger sibling of Elk standouts Moriah (2011 graduate) and Michaela. “If we have another late start this spring (with games bunched up), it will give us an edge to have two good pitchers.”
Coach Bruns added that it’s still a young team with a core of sophomores and just one senior, Madi Anderson. “We expect a good season, although we’ve got Maple Grove in our section,” Bruns said.
Maple Grove is wary of the Royals, Koltes said.
“Rogers is up and coming, and they had a nice section run last year,” the Crimson coach observed. “I saw them in an early scrimmage fest and they look like this could be their breakout year.”