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Prep softball: Sweeney replaces a Hermantown legend as coach

Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com New Hermantown softball coach Michelle Sweeney gets ready to pitch batting practice to her players last week in the Hermantown Middle School gym.1 / 3
Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com After 41 years with Tom Bang as head coach, Michelle Sweeney takes over the Hermantown softball team. Sweeney is a 1996 graduate of the school.2 / 3
Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com New Hermantown softball coach Michelle Sweeney yells encouragement to her players as she pitches batting practice in the Hermantown Middle School gym recently.3 / 3

Multiple times this spring, first-year Hermantown softball coach Michelle Sweeney has called her predecessor, Tom Bang, to talk shop. The conversations start with a routine question before invariably drifting toward a deeper discussion of strategy that might last 90 minutes.

"I lean on him a lot," Sweeney said as the Hawks practiced indoors last week.

Sweeney is one of a kind. Consider: She's the first Hermantown softball coach not named Tom Bang since ... well, ever. The man who launched the program in 1978 decided last summer that 41 seasons in the dugout was enough. He retired with 710 career victories, 23 state tournament appearances and three titles.

The Hawks promptly replaced one Hall of Famer with another. Sweeney was inducted by the Minnesota Fastpitch Coaches Association in 2011 for a playing career that spanned six years on the Hermantown varsity, followed by four at the University of Minnesota. Bang was a 2012 coaches association inductee.

He's certainly not forgotten among the Hawks. Nor is he truly gone from the scene.

"He's here from time to time, and that's always a welcome face to see," speedy center fielder Gabby Blomdahl said.

Blomdahl says Bang mostly observes the controlled chaos that comes with practicing an outdoor sport inside a gymnasium. He occasionally does some work with the slap hitters.

"But he tends to just watch," said Blomdahl, a senior who will play collegiately at Minnesota-Crookston. "You see him over there smiling and you know he misses it."

What Bang did — establishing a dominant softball team in northern Minnesota — is akin to building a hockey powerhouse in Phoenix. Hermantown has made a habit of getting to Caswell Park in North Mankato every June, though its streak of state appearances ended at five last spring when the Hawks' 14-10 season ended in the Section 7AAA semifinals.

"I've been playing on the team since seventh grade, and I've just been going to state, so it was really devastating not going last year," said senior shortstop and pitcher Hannah Mihalik, a Concordia-St. Paul recruit.

Both Mihalik and Blomdahl say it was a strange feeling to walk into their first practice in March and not see the no-nonsense Bang raring to go. While the person responsible for filling out the lineup card has changed, the expectations haven't.

Just as it's always been, the goal is a section title, said Sweeney, whose brother — Mike Zagelmeyer — coaches football and baseball at the school. But she's more focused on the process, doing all the little things between now and late May that will sow postseason success.

A 1996 Hermantown graduate, the 41-year-old Sweeney teaches special education at Esko. She was a volunteer assistant for the Hawks in 2016 and, as a seventh-grader in 1991, was a member of their first state championship squad, though Sweeney says her biggest contribution was pinch-running and being "in charge of the boombox."

As the Hawks try to reclaim the 7AAA crown — North Branch won it in 2018 by defeating Cloquet twice in the finals — they have a talented returning core.

Mihalik batted .453 as a junior, when she was named second-team All-State and first-team All-Lake Superior Conference, and is a terrific defender up the middle. Blomdahl, the righty-turned-lefty hitter who conservatively calls herself "semi-fast," stole 38 bases a year ago while earning second-team All-LSC honors with a .386 batting average.

Junior Alana Mayry, who saw a lot of time in the pitcher's circle, also made the all-conference second team and compiled a .431 average.

The pieces are in place, and Sweeney is excited to see how the spring unfolds.

"I feel honored to be in this position right now," the coach said. "It's a premier program, and I hope to continue with the excellence that Mr. Bang — and former assistants and players — have created over the last 41 years."

• Cloquet brings back eight starters after going 16-7 and coming within a win of its first trip to state since 2012. Among them is lightning-quick outfielder Dana Jones, who hit .500 as an eighth-grader. Junior Lucy Sinkkonen again inhabits the circle, while senior first baseman and catcher Allie Wojtysiak, injured half of last season, adds punch in the middle of the lineup.

• Senior shortstop Gianna Torres, who will play after high school at St. Thomas, leads Duluth Denfeld, which was 8-13 a year ago. The Hunters lose three seniors who decided to focus on other sports this spring.

• Pitcher Elora Weiland and infielders Kirstin Cotter, Riley Mociniak and Emma Carlson look to help Duluth East bounce back from a 5-14 campaign.

• Across the bridge, Superior bid farewell to versatile infielder Erin Thompson, a four-year starter now playing at Minnesota Duluth. Dominant senior pitcher Mady Stariha, however, is back after going 17-4 with a 1.06 ERA in 2018, when she tallied 172 strikeouts vs. 28 walks. She's a future Bulldog.

Carlton reloads

In 2017, Carlton became a nice story by surprising many and bumping Cherry from its customary perch atop Section 7A. The Bulldogs showed they were more than one-hit wonders last spring, successfully defending their crown and then winning twice in North Mankato to finish fifth in Class A.

Can Carlton, 40-10 the past two seasons, make it a three-peat?

Only two starters graduated from the 2018 club, and most of the key cogs this spring are juniors. That includes catcher Alaina Bennett, who batted .419 with nine doubles as a sophomore. Bennett and pitcher Brynne Mickle form an excellent battery.

Those two, like so many of the Bulldogs, have experienced big-time success in other sports — most notably, volleyball, where Carlton went to state last fall. Junior outfielder Taylor Nelson is a Bemidji State hockey commit.

• Three-time defending Section 7AA champ Esko has big holes to fill, most notably in the pitcher's circle, where News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year Emilee Wilson was 21-3 with a 0.98 ERA and 226 strikeouts in 164 innings. The Eskomos will retool around junior outfielder Jenna Zdebski (.530 average and 21 RBIs last season).

• Virginia, the team that Esko defeated twice for the section title, has an experienced group, highlighted by juniors Anna Seitz (.449), an outfielder, and pitcher Ava Warren.

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