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Girls fast-pitch teams advance to state, regional, nationals

The strength of Twin Ports area fast-pitch softball has never been better, a fact underscored by various post-season tournament competitions. But it is a complex world where advancement is sometimes assured and other times unreachable.

The strength of Twin Ports area fast-pitch softball has never been better, a fact underscored by various post-season tournament competitions. But it is a complex world where advancement is sometimes assured and other times unreachable.
The area girls' fast-pitch league, which started out as a four-team operation intended to promote the Esko Ice, which has never lost a game since the girls' fast-pitch league started play, has nurtured some strong supporting teams. The league has grown to the point where most of a dozen regional teams have developed to a high level of competitiveness.
The Minnesota Xplosion last weekend finished as runner-up to the heralded Mankato Peppers in the state Class A tournament, which qualifies the Xplosion for this weekend's regional American Softball Association tournament in Mankato, where the prize is a trip to Virginia for the national tournament.
The Xplosion consists of players from Duluth, Cloquet, Virginia, Hermantown, Carlton, Cherry and Eveleth.
The Minnesota North Stars, a team comprised of girls from Cloquet, Proctor, Barnum and other regional towns, competed in the state Class B tournament, and reached the semifinals to also qualify to advance to further competition in the vast network of ASA regional and national tournaments. The Blast, another league team, also advanced far enough to go on in Class B play, but those teams must decide if they will try to meet the costly travel demands to keep playing.
The Duluth Aerials, made up of girls from Duluth East, will play this weekend in Rochester in the state Class C tournament.
If it seems odd that the Esko Ice doesn't compete in any of those state or regional tournaments, it is because the Ice is in what is called the Gold level, and is qualified to automatically participate in the under-18 Gold Nationals at Marietta, Ga., in two weeks.
"It does seem like maybe we should be going to the state or regional tournaments," said Gary Fritch, the first-year head coach of the Ice, who assisted Roger Plachta last season, when the Ice also went to the Nationals.
"It's a pretty complex setup, but the Gold Nationals are for teams at the highest level, the most elite teams, which can draft players from all around their areas. It is really tough competition. Last year, we won two games at the Nationals, and that was probably better than we could have been expected to do. I sometimes wonder if we wouldn't be better off going to a state or regional tournament, where we could win a lot of games, and maybe even the tournament, because the competition at the Gold Nationals is so strong."
College recruiters flock to the Gold Nationals, and most of the teams have several Division One players or top candidates.
"Last year, we won our first game in the double-elimination pool play, then we lost to Katy's Kruisers, a team from Katy, Texas, that had Catherine Ofterman pitching," Fritch recalled. "She had pitched and lost 1-0 to the U.S. Olympic team last year, and this year, she beat a team of Olympic candidates. She's going to the University of Texas, and they had numerous D1 players."
The Ice is made up of select players from throughout the area, with a couple players from Forest Lake. Stephanie Fritch, the coach's daughter who starred at Duluth Central and now pitches for Winona State, is the top pitcher, while Lindsey Erickson from Hermantown, April Makowski from St. Scholastica and Meghan Norris from Duluth East are among other selected players.
Numerous coaches get involved because their daughters play, much like boys sports. Ron Tondryk of Cloquet coaches both the Xplosion, where his daughter, Brooke Tondryk, alternates pitching starts with Lindsey Predovich of Virginia, and the under-14 age Blast, where his younger daughter plays. "I've coached 17 teams during the past 10 years," Tondryk said.
"At the 14-under tournament the previous week, we won our first two games, lost our third, then had to win five straight games without a break to get to the championship, where we lost 5-1.
"Last weekend at Elk River, the Xplosion played seven games, and we won five of them," Tondryk added. "The only team that beat us was the Mankato Peppers, which has four Division One players."
The way Tondryk worked his pitching rotation, Brooke Tondryk pitched the first game and Predovich the second, and he continued the pattern as the Xplosion got to 4-0.
"We and the Peppers were the last two undefeated teams, and they beat us 1-0 in eight innings," said Tondryk. "They scored an unearned run in the eighth inning to beat us, then we came back to beat Tartan 1-0 to get the chance to play the Peppers again in the finals. But we had to beat them twice in the double-elimination format, and we ran out of gas. They beat us 8-0."
Brooke Tondryk pitched both games against the Peppers, finishing 3-2 for the tournament, while Predovich was 4-0 in the alternate games. The Xplosion is now 27-12 for the season, but it may have a couple players missing from the regional tournament in Mankato this weekend.
In Rochester, coach Stan Karich thinks his Aerials could do well, but the Class C tournament is an unknown. His team sacrificed star third baseman Norris to the Ice midway through the season, but has persevered.
"There are a lot of real community teams in the Class C tournament, but also some metropolitan area teams that are put together after their A and B tournament teams are selected, so there will be some good teams from bigger areas, too," Karich said.
Conspicuous by their absence from all the state tournaments, the Esko Ice remains Minnesota's only Gold National team. And Tondryk measures the progress of his Xplosion by the fact that the team lost 1-0 to the Ice and 1-0 to the Mankato Peppers in two tests against the state's best teams.
The Ice will take its 22-4 record to a tournament in Chippewa Falls, Wis., this weekend for a tuneup for the Gold Nationals. Plachta, former Esko coach, based his original select team in Esko, so the name remains, even though there are only a couple players on the team from Esko. It is certain to be the smallest town represented at the Gold Nationals. Plachta just finished his first year as softball coach at UWS, and is coaching the Superior Toons in Twin Ports league play, where Erickson remains his top pitcher, when she's not playing center field for the Ice.
The rest of the regional teams don't have national tournaments as their focus, which is why some of the travel plans are questionable. Such trips, forced in a short time, are extremely expensive, which is why most teams advance as far as they can in state or regional play, but may choose not to go on to nationals.
"We'll play in the regional at Mankato this weekend, and we'll go on to the Midwest Nationals in Cincinnati," said Tondryk. "If we do real well there, we may go on, but we haven't decided yet."

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