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Well-focused Hermantown bid for AA softball title falls just short

There is no thought of "wait 'til next year." No rationalization for any shortcomings. The Hermantown Hawks simply spent everything they had in a spirited run at winning the state Class AA softball championship and came oh-so-close to pulling it off.

There is no thought of "wait 'til next year." No rationalization for any shortcomings. The Hermantown Hawks simply spent everything they had in a spirited run at winning the state Class AA softball championship and came oh-so-close to pulling it off.
The Hawks stormed through two first-day foes at Caswell Park in North Mankato, and, after falling behind 3-0 in the championship game, they rallied furiously, only to end up the state runner-up by a narrow 3-2 count against Maple River. It was a return trip for both finalists. Hermantown had beaten Winona Cotter a year ago before losing to Holy Angels in a 2-0 semifinal, and 1-0 to Delano in the third-place game. Maple River had lost 3-0 to Holy Angels in last year's opener, then beat Winona Cotter 8-1 and Jackson County Central 4-1 for the consolation title.
Hermantown had won the state A title 10 years ago, when it was a two-class tournament, while Maple River, of Mapleton, won the next season, in 1991, and repeated in 1996, while falling to Esko in the championship game of 1998. Next year looks bright for the Hawks, but Virginia -- the 7AAA champion -- has only two seniors and will be dropping into Hermantown's Class AA next season after making it to the AAA semifinals last weekend.
But the future, much like history, meant little to this year's Hawks, who were primed and focused on their objective by coach Tom Bang. Hermantown had the only team with a reluctant star pitcher, because junior lefthander Lindsey Erickson always has been upfront about preferring to play center-field. Now that the high school tournament is over, she can go play center for the elite Esko Ice select team, an outfit she starred on last summer, which was capped by a run to the national tournament. However, new Ice coach Gary Fritch might let her pitch a little bit, at least, after her brilliant state tournament performance.
Erickson, who was 3-for-9 hitting and didn't allow any earned runs in three full games, made the AA all-tournament team, as did Hawk teammates Megan Delich, who was 4-for-9, and Jamie Bang, who was 3-for-8.
The Hawks got to state by beating Greenway 13-3 and 4-0 in the double-elimination Section 7AA, and Erickson continued her shutout pitching in the state tournament by stifling Warroad 3-0 in the Hawks' first game, Friday morning at North Mankato's Caswell Park. Erickson's 2-hit pitching was a key, but so was Hermantown's ability to come up with key hits at pivotal points.
Coach Tom Bang said his team has a couple of offensive concepts. One is where "one of our first two hitters (Tessa Drumsta and Jamie Bang) gets on base," and then one of the next three, Lindsey Erickson, Stacey Stokke or Megan Delich, delivers a hit to drive them in. But he also likes to arrange his batting order so that junior center-fielder Laura Axtell is batting ninth.
"Nine by design," Bang calls it. "She fits in well with the top of our lineup."
Designated hitter Megan Francisco -- who joins right-fielder Jennifer Reinier and reserves Stacey Swanson, Tiffany Berg and Lizzy Forseth as the only seniors on the 18-player roster -- got Hermantown going in the Warroad game by singling to center in the second. A walk to catcher Anna Bjorlin, who is only a seventh-grader, and a sacrifice by Reinier, set up the Hawks No. 9 hitter. Axtell singled to center for a run.
In the third, Bang beat out a bunt single leading off, and Erickson, usually a slashing, opposite-field hitter, stepped into a pitch and pulled a triple over the right-fielder's head, driving in Bang. Erickson scored when Stokke grounded out.
Warroad's Amber Hasbargen led off the fourth by blasting a hit over Axtell's head in center field. Axtell chased it down and threw a long, hard, and only slightly wayward throw to third. No problem; Erickson caught the throw 20 feet from third and tagged Hasbargen out, although the third-base ump initially called her safe and had to be overruled.
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"I was so mad when she hit it over my head that I just threw it in there as hard as I could," said Axtell.
After outhitting Warroad 7-2, the Hawks had to come right back Friday afternoon to beat Winona Cotter 3-0 in the semifinals. The Hawks didn't get a baserunner through three innings, but then Drumsta walked to open the fourth, was sacrificed to second by Bang, and scored when Erickson singled to right. Erickson went to second on the throw home, and scored when Delich again came through with a single to left-center for a 2-0 lead. In the last of the fifth, nine-by-design Axtell doubled over the left-fielder's head and scored when Drumsta singled to right for another 3-0 victory.
Erickson didn't allow a Cotter hit until Leah Troke singled in the seventh, after a walk, putting two runners on with no out. A fielder's choice eliminated one, and Delich ended the game by snaring a line drive at first base, and turning it into an unassisted double play. "I was, like, ice-cream-coning it," said Delich, who had two hits in the game.
Erickson struck out three in the state tournament's 17th 1-hitter, which put her into the record book next to Leah Bowen, who also struck out three last year when she beat Winona Cotter, also on a one-hitter.
It took Maple River junior Christina Alleven to subdue Hermantown's hitters, and the Hawks appeared about to be 1-hit themselves. Delich's long double to center in the second was the only hit -- the only base-runner -- by the Hawks mustered through the first six innings. Alleven retired 13 in a row after Delich's hit, while the Eagles parlayed an error, wild pitch, and a couple of hits into a 2-0 lead in the fourth, and a two-out single, followed by an error, gave them another in the fifth.
It was still 3-0 in the last of the seventh, but Jamie Bang led off. "My goal was to get on base, to get something started," she said. And she did that, precisely, by singling to center. Erickson was up next and whacked a single to left, sending Bang to third, and Erickson took second on the throw. Stokke grounded out to second, but drove in Bang to cut it to 3-1. Delich then came up and faced probably the most tense moment of the tournament.
"I hit a change-up for my first double," Delich said. "Then she struck me out with a fastball on the outside corner my second time up. The third time, coach said that he thought she might throw it closer to down the middle, and if she did, I should turn on it. I went up there just trying to tell myself some jokes to stay loose."
With that, Delich ripped a fastball over the right-fielder's head, driving in Erickson and resulting in her second double of the game.
"That was a great piece of hitting," said coach Tom Bang. "She had unloaded on the change-up, and she struck her out with hard stuff away, but she came back and got around on the hard stuff."
Megan Francisco grounded out to second, with pinch-runner Leah Benedict, took third, with two out. Bjorlin, the seventh-grader, the littlest Hawk, went up there and went for it. But Alleven fielded Bjorlin's grounder and threw to first to end the game.
"She went up there to hit that ball," said coach Bang. "That's why she can play so well at her age."
Tournament Notes:

Virginia pitcher Lindsey Predovich beat Mankato East 3-2 in the AAA first round, but dropped a tough 2-1 game to Lakeville in the semifinals, and then lost 5-0 to Stillwater in the third-place game. Predovich was the lone Virginia player on the all-tournament Class AAA team. Lakeville went on to the final, where Armstrong won the AAA title 3-2. The third Up North entry was Silver Bay in Class A, and the Mariners lost a tough 4-3 game to Brandon/Evansville in the quarterfinals. Winsted Holy Trinity beat Silver Bay 4-0 in the consolation semifinals. Mankato Loyola beat Lyle/Austin Pacelli 3-0 in the A final.

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