While weather messes with the Minnesota high school softball state tournament schedule on a nearly yearly basis, graduation ceremonies also routinely alter playing times.

Carlton needn't worry about the latter.

The Bulldogs (23-4) don't have a senior on their roster and won't have to high-tail it home during this week's Class A state tournament, which begins with a quarterfinal against New York Mills (22-2) at 1 p.m. Thursday at Caswell Park in North Mankato. The winner advances to that evening's semifinal round against either Pillager or Sleepy Eye St. Mary's.

What makes Carlton's state tournament debut remarkable is the Bulldogs start six freshmen - twins Brynne and Abby Mickle, RaeAnn Barney, Ava Grondahl, Alaina Bennett and Nicole Nilsen - and those youngsters came through to defeat seven-time defending Section 7A champion Cherry twice in the section final last week.

The age stat is a bit misleading since several of those freshmen started as eighth-graders and all played on the team that reached last season's section final.

"Having varsity experience last year as eighth-graders really helped them come in and play with the mentality of a sophomore or a junior," second-year coach Melissa Clark said.

One of those young guns is catcher Alaina Bennett, who was called up to varsity in the seventh grade. Bennett says putting in extra work at practice compensates for any inexperience.

"We're young but determined," she said.

Even so, Bennett knew qualifying for state was a longshot to begin the season.

"It definitely was in the back of our minds, but we lost a number of good fielders and hitters so I didn't think this was our year," she said. "I'm glad we were determined and knew that even though we were young we could still do it."

The players aren't the only ones who are young. Clark is a 2010 Carlton graduate who was still at Wisconsin-Superior when she began serving as assistant coach three years ago.

Clark is a cousin to Beth Clark, Hermantown's longtime activities director who coached basketball and volleyball for many years and will be at Caswell Park watching the Hawks play in their 23rd state tournament while keeping an eye on her relative.

The Clarks have had conversations in the past about how to straddle that line between coach and friend.

"It's definitely easy to relate to me, but as a younger coach I need to make sure there's that line between friend and coach," Melissa Clark said. "Yeah, I want to be their friend, but I can't be buddy-buddy all the time. The girls handle it pretty well and I handle it pretty well. They know when they can joke around, but they know when to be serious and where the line is, too."

It hasn't come easy for Carlton. The team lost its second-leading hitter in freshman outfielder Taylor Nelson to a batted ball to the face in practice before the 7A final, rotated three freshman pitchers much of the season and lost 10-2 and 7-3 the first two meetings against Cherry.

They battled back through the losers' bracket and avenged the losses to the Tigers, winning 5-4 and 9-7 in the double-elimination bracket.

"Our hitting finally came around," Clark said. "We had confidence against a team that we had been lacking confidence against.

"We can't let the name on the jersey beat us."

Barney, the likely starter against New York Mills, threw all 14 innings of that doubleheader.

"She's an amazing pitcher," Bennett said of the team's No. 3 pitcher entering the playoffs. "A lot of pressure was put on her and she pulled through and did her best. She calmed down her nerves and just pitched."

That's the goal again Thursday, through Bennett knows she's not fooling anyone if she says nerves won't be a factor.

"Obviously there's going to be nerves for everyone because they are big games and it's a totally new and different environment," she said. "We just have to work hard instead of being nervous."

Class A State Tournament

At North Mankato, Minn.

Thursday's Quarterfinals

Carlton (24-3) vs. No. 2 New York Mills (22-2), 1 p.m.

Red Lake Falls (18-8) vs. No. 1 Edgerton/Southwest Christian (22-3), 1 p.m.

Hayfield (17-6) vs. No. 4 Kimball Area (19-3), 1 p.m.

PIllager (17-7) vs. No. 3 Sleepy Eye St. Mary's (22-2), 1 p.m.