Prep softball: Hawks’ success stems from gene pool

Jordyn Thomas' father, Mike, was an All-American lineman at Minnesota Duluth and her mother, the former Kelli Ritzer, still holds UMD women's basketball records for 3-point shooting.

Hermantown softball
Allison Samberg (from left) Jillayne Gilbert, Jordyn Thomas, Macy Francisco and Kylie Hoff are all key starters for the Hermantown softball team that is headed to the Class AA state tournament this week in North Mankato, Minn. All have had either siblings or close relatives that had success while playing for the Hawks. Clint Austin /

Jordyn Thomas’ father, Mike, was an All-American lineman at Minnesota Duluth and her mother, the former Kelli Ritzer, still holds UMD women’s basketball records for 3-point shooting.
Her oldest brother, Jared, signed to play hockey at UMD this fall, and another older brother, Jace, split time in goal for Hermantown’s state tournament team this year.
So it’s no surprise the Hermantown freshman is athletically gifted as well.
“I have three brothers and we’ve always played sports since we were younger,” said Thomas, who grew up playing basketball, hockey, volleyball and softball. “I was always trying to run with them, and I hung in there. But they were a little bigger and a little stronger.”
That’s the case with several of the starters on Hermantown’s state-bound softball team. Athletic genes seem to run in the family.
Thomas, Macy Francisco and Allison Samberg all had siblings play in various state tournaments as did Jillayne Gilbert’s cousin, Julia, while Kylie Hoff’s older sister was a two-time News Tribune All-Area soccer player of the year.
“It certainly helps to grow up in that athletic culture because there’s encouragement from the initial get-go and pretty decent instruction,” said Hawks coach Tom Bang, the beneficiary of all the genetic hand-me-downs during his 36 years at the helm.
Whether the athletic talent propels the Hawks to the top of Class AA remains to be seen. No. 10 Hermantown (19-5) faces top-ranked Kasson-Mantorville (25-0) in a quarterfinal at 1 p.m. today at Caswell Park in North Mankato, Minn. The winner advances to a 7 p.m. semifinal against either Hawley or Staples-Motley.
Macy Francisco also comes from excellent lineage. Her father, Jason, was a Division I hockey player at the University of Wisconsin and her mother, Joey, was a standout athlete as well. Macy, a senior second baseman, played alongside her sister, Celine, for several seasons before Celine graduated last year.
Guidance from those who had been there proved crucial to athletic success, Macy says.
“My dad always told us, ‘If you set a goal, there’s nothing that hard work can’t do to help you reach it. Anything that you have in your sights is definitely possible,’ ” she said.
Julia Gilbert was an All-State softball player who helped the Hawks win the 2009 Class AA state title and went on to skate for Division I St. Cloud State. Jillayne Gilbert, a junior shortstop, tagged along whenever family members played sports for fun.
“All my older cousins influenced me in a positive way to play sports,” she said. “They always brought me to the rink and we were rink rats, and they brought me to the field and played catch.”
Likewise, Allison Samberg followed in the footsteps of her brother, Andrew, to play goalie for the Hawks’ soccer team. While she wasn’t able to repeat her brother’s state tournament trip in soccer, the senior outfielder is making her second trip in softball.
“He had a good influence on me and encouraged me to play all three sports,” said Allison, who at one time also played hockey. “He was a positive role model to look up to - especially when he went to state in soccer - and I wanted to do the same.”
Kylie Hoff played soccer when she was younger before deciding to join traveling softball teams. The reverse was true for her older sister, Hailey, who switched from softball to soccer and became the Northland’s leading scorer the past two years. Hailey’s goal of playing in a state tournament was denied, but she is happy, Kylie says, to see her sister do so.
“Hailey provided a positive role model for me and told me I could be there, too, someday,” said Kylie, the team’s sophomore pitcher. “She had a positive influence on me.”
What this Hermantown team faces that is different than many of the previous 19 that Bang has brought to state tournaments is it’s in an underdog role. The KoMets ended Hermantown’s title hopes last year with a 6-1 victory in the semifinals before losing to New Ulm in the championship tilt.
Revenge would be sweet, the Hawks say.
“Kasson hasn’t lost yet and I think we should be the one that beats them,” Francisco said.
To do so, the team will need to continue hitting like it has for most of the season. Hermantown’s 9.4 runs-per-game average is second to Kasson-Mantorville (9.6) among the eight-team Class AA field.
“We’ve been solid with hitting and scored countless runs in the two weeks of our season that we had,” Gilbert said, referring to the poor spring weather. “That’s what we need to rely on and be determined to give this team their one loss.”
Thomas added: “We surprised a lot of people. I don’t think a lot of people thought we could be where we were last year, but we proved a lot of people wrong.”
But probably not family members. After all, it’s in the genes.

Today’s prep softball game Hermantown (19-5) vs. Kasson-Mantorville (25-0)

What: Class AA state tournament quarterfinal
When: 1 p.m.
Where: Caswell Park, North Mankato, Minn.
Outlook: The Hawks cruised through the Section 7 playoffs unbeaten to earn their 20th overall state tournament appearance and 12th in the last 15 years. The school won state titles in 1991, 2002 and 2009. Hermantown is averaging 9.4 runs per game and averaged hitting .387 as a team. Freshman first baseman Jordyn Thomas (.550, 27 RBIs), junior catcher Brooke Dahlin (.403, 25 RBIs), junior shortstop Jillayne Gilbert (.390, 36 RBIs) and sophomore pitcher Kylie Hoff (.413, 19 RBIs) lead the hitting attack. Hoff (13-4, 2.81 ERA, 66 strikeouts) is finishing her first year on the mound. … The KoMets swept through Section 1, winning three games by 10 or more runs, to remain undefeated. Junior pitcher Maddie Damon (23-0, 0.25 ERA, 290 strikeouts) broke former Virginia pitcher Lindsey Predovich’s Minnesota career strikeout record with more than 1,200. But it was the Hawks who prevented Predovich from reaching the state tournament during her senior season. Damon also bats .347 with 20 RBIs. Senior Kaylea Schoor (.544, 27 RBIs) wields the biggest bat on a team that hit .354 and outscored opponents 240-8. Kasson-Mantorville is making its third consecutive and fifth overall appearance and finished as 2013 runners-up, following a 6-1 semifinal victory over Hermantown.
Quote: “Sometimes the target has been on our back and I’m not sure how that goes in this setting. They have a good record and a number of kids back from last year. But we can’t worry about that, we just have to worry about ourselves.” - Hawks coach Tom Bang.

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