Prep softball tournament preview: Hawks knockin’ on Hunters’ door

Duluth Denfeld didn't receive any favors when the rejiggered section alignments for softball were unveiled. Sure, the Hunters, who stayed put in Section 7AAA, bid farewell to the likes of Anoka, Elk River and other southern-based heavyweights as ...

Duluth Denfeld’s Gianna Torres begins her swing while batting in a recent game. Clint Austin /

Duluth Denfeld didn’t receive any favors when the rejiggered section alignments for softball were unveiled. Sure, the Hunters, who stayed put in Section 7AAA, bid farewell to the likes of Anoka, Elk River and other southern-based heavyweights as the sport added a fourth class.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Denfeld’s door to the state tournament was shoved wide open. Always-tough Chisago Lakes remains and, perhaps more cruelly, Hermantown moved up from Section 7AA. The Hawks have made 21 trips to state, including seven of the past eight years. They are ranked fifth in Class AAA.
Hunters coach Dick Swanson believes Hermantown sets up well for the postseason. Tom Bang’s club has ample pitching, headlined by Breanna Thomas and Kylie Hoff, who have alternated turns in the circle once again. The Hawks are fundamentally sound, making the plays they’re supposed to make. And they’re averaging nearly 10 runs per game, with a lineup that is productive top to bottom.
Not a lot of weaknesses for the presumed top seed.
“Another thing is they’re competitive because they’ve been to the state tournament so many times,” Swanson said Monday from the recently renamed Dick Swanson Fields just outside of Wade Stadium. “These games don’t faze them; they’re into these games from the start. Other kids are in awe - ‘We’re playing Hermantown, Hermantown’s good.’ Keep feeling that way, they’re going to beat you. That’s what happens - they beat people because teams panic a little bit, teams are afraid of them. And they don’t have any fear themselves.”
The Hawks are 15-4 entering today’s regular-season finale vs. Grand Rapids. Seventh-ranked Denfeld (15-5) figures to be the No. 2 seed, with Chisago Lakes (13-7) third. The eight-team, double-elimination section tournament starts Saturday in Cloquet before moving to Grand Rapids for the semifinals and finals on May 31 and June 2.

After years of dominating Section 7AA, Hermantown is embracing the challenge of trying to navigate a bracket with deeper lineups boasted by bigger schools.
“It’s so exciting for everyone to be able to face more challenging teams in bigger games because a lot of us love competition,” Thomas, a junior, said. “And sometimes it’s not as fun when you don’t have that. So now moving from 2A to 3A there’s a lot more of it and it becomes a lot more fun, and I can say that for everyone.”
Underscoring that sentiment is a team like Cloquet, which could be seeded as low as sixth despite a 14-6 record. The Lumberjacks also are newcomers to 7AAA.
Chisago Lakes is undefeated against section opponents, defeating Denfeld and Hermantown 1-0 and 6-5, respectively.
Bang, who owns 668 career victories, isn’t dwelling too much on who the Hawks could or couldn’t face. As always at this time of year, he’s focused on the players in his dugout.
“Our philosophy here is we have to worry about the team that can beat us the most, and usually the team that has the chance to beat us the most is ourselves,” he said. “So we have to take care of business from our side of the table and let the other side unfold as it might.”
Saturday’s quarterfinal round features 10 games, and some teams could play three times that day. That’s a tall task for most prep squads, which tend to rely predominantly on a single pitcher. Senior Ashley Taipale, for example, has thrown all but two-thirds of an inning of the Hunters’ 2016 season.
Thomas, who threw all 13 innings in an instant-classic game against Superior last week - an eventual 6-5 loss - has battled what Bang called a twinge in her throwing shoulder. But the pitcher says that’s all cleared up. She’s good to go.
As a sophomore, she was one of the heroes as the Hawks came out of the loser’s bracket to defeat Pequot Lakes twice in the Section 7AA finals, en route to a third-place finish at another state tournament.
Indeed, reaching state has all but become the expectation at Hermantown, which claimed its most recent title in 2009 and was second in 2010 and 2011. Still, players aren’t burdened by the pressure of punching the program’s ticket to Caswell Park in North Mankato, Minn.
“We don’t really talk about it much,” said junior third baseman and leadoff hitter Kailey Mihalik, who sets the tone for the Hawks with a batting average hovering around .550. “I just try to relax whether I’m up to bat or in the field and not really think about that.”
Like Hermantown, Cherry has become a state tournament staple.
The Tigers, who overcame a loss to Greenway during the 2015 Section 7A tournament to beat the Raiders twice in the finals and secure a sixth consecutive section crown, stumbled out of the gate this spring. They were 2-4 after a setback against South Ridge on April 22, but haven’t lost since, and carry a 13-game winning streak into today’s first-round matchup with eighth-seeded Mountain Iron-Buhl (3-15).
Cherry (15-4) and Carlton (14-6) are the No. 1 seeds in the 15-team bracket.
Nashwauk-Keewatin (13-2) and South Ridge (13-4), the only Class A teams to knock off the Tigers, are seeded second in their respective subsections.
Esko (12-5) and Virginia (10-8) are the top seeds in new-look Section 7AA. The Eskomos have a first-round bye today, while the Blue Devils open against No. 8 Eveleth-Gilbert (5-13).
In Section 7AAAA, sixth-seeded Duluth East (10-10) opens Thursday at No. 3 Blaine (12-7).

View playoff schedule here

News Tribune prep rankings

(Class AAAA and AAA)
1. Superior 18-5
2. Hermantown 15-4
3. Duluth Denfeld 15-5
4. Northwestern 19-4


(Class AA and A)
1. Esko 12-5
2. Cherry 15-4
3. MLWR 15-4
4. Virginia 10-8

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