Duluth East fast-pitch softball boasts the deepest and most experienced pitching staff in northeastern Minnesota, if not all of Minnesota.
Pitching is key in fast-pitch, of course, and pitchers aren't a dime a dozen. Pitchers who can throw strikes past hitters at the high school level can lead even a mediocre team deep into the playoffs.
East can throw a trio of rocket arms at opponents. Seniors Emily Waage (0.77 ERA) and Joelle Cressman (1.33) and junior Brittany Nelson (1.71) all are experienced and can dominate.
East, 13-7 a year ago, also returns six of eight position starters. So mark it down: with strong pitching and veteran positionals, the Greyhounds will be a force in the double-elimination Section 7AAA tournament Memorial Day weekend in Grand Rapids. Only final four play was double-elimination play up until this spring.
"No question, double-elimination the whole way through gives us an advantage," East coach Stan Karich said. "If you lose a game early and have to play your way back through the loser's bracket, it can be a lot of games and be tough on your pitching staff."
Karich said with its pitching depth and experience at key positions, "We're the team to beat in Section 7AAA, and I won't make any bones about it."
Karich said Cloquet, Elk River, Cambridge and North Branch will be strong teams in Section 7AAA this spring.
East was the No. 1 seed in the Section 7AAA tournament a year ago, but Grand Rapids punched the Greyhounds from the playoffs with a 7-5, first round victory. It was a painful finish to the season for the Greyhounds, especially seniors 2B Meghan Norris (team-high .500), SS Jenna Arotta and RF Anna Skoglund.
"We had a great season, but losing to Grand Rapids was tough," Karich said. "We had the ability to make the section final four and go to state. Cloquet, who we beat 3-0 during the regular season, eventually went to state."
Karich said East was the best hitting team in Section 7AAA last spring.
"I'm confident that we can carry the offense over to this spring," Karich said.
But East wasn't strong defensively last spring, and committed 51 errors enroute to a .892 team fielding percentage.
"To work behind our pitching staff, we must improve our defense," Karich said.
East returns a kennel of talent in 2003. Players to watch include C Fiona Lodge (.353), 1B Carrie Oswald (.207), SS Sara Marshall (.217, DH a year ago), 3B Anne Litecky (.326), LF Ginger Jentzen (.146, a four-year starter) and CF Joann Juten (.358).
"Lodge might be a Division I catching prospect," Karich said. "She has it all, a great arm, a quick release and, perhaps best of all, she's so coachable. Juten, too, is a top prospect. And Jentzen, a four-year starter, might be one of the most underrated players that I've coached."
But make no mistake: pitching is East's strength. Here's how Karich sizes up his chuckers:
Waage: "She's a third year varsity pitcher who has good location and keeps the ball down, and can move it around. She's working hard on a nickel rise and changeup."
Nelson: "Brittany has a very good rise ball, which is her strength, and good location. She's working on a drop ball, and on her transition from the rise to the drop."
Cressman: "Joelle probably has the best location of all three pitchers, and has been a starting pitcher since her freshman season. She's not as quick as Emily or Brittany, and we expect her to get some quality innings even if she lands a starting spot in the outfield, which is likely. She's recovering from knee surgery last August, and softball will be her first attempt at any type of athletic sport since the surgery. She's pretty gung-ho to get the softball season going."
How badly do the Greyhounds want to be the best they can be this spring? Waage and Lodge drove to the Twin Cities almost every Sunday this winter to work out at St. Thomas.
"When they told me that, I was impressed," Karich said.
But East has yet to advance to state in Karich's first five seasons as head coach.
"Most of the girls on this year's team have been with the varsity for three or four years, and now they're seniors," Karich said. "This could be our year."
Between the Lines
Look for Gophers sophomore Rick Rickert of Duluth to declare for the NBA draft when his team finishes the 2003 season. While the 6-foot-11 outside-inside player isn't ready for the NBA, fueling much speculation whether he will return to the University of Minnesota for his junior season, it's time for him to go. While gaining a college degree is important, one more year at Minnesota will delay Rickert's development for the NBA.
He likely will be a lottery pick in next June's draft, meaning that he'll receive a three-year, guaranteed contract at $1.5 million per year minimum.
Rickert, who just turned 20, has a game better suited for the pros than college, where he is continually double- and triple-teamed. He should be a strong wing player in the pros, gaining more playing time each season and someday becoming a starter.
I look for him to have an eight to 10 year career in the pros and to finish his college education.
Here's hoping that he returns to Duluth to host a free basketball camp each summer. Now, there's a hometown hero giving back to his community.
- Spring sports workouts begin Monday for baseball, golf and boys' tennis. Duluth East has powerhouse baseball and boys' tennis teams.
Howie Hanson writes a weekly sports column for Duluth Budgeteer News. He can be reached by e-mail at Duluth@aol.com