Standing at what she admits is 5-foot-2, Kaylee McMillen is one of the smaller high school softball players you'll see, yet it's the Cloquet pitcher who has been the biggest lift for her team.
McMillen tossed a two-hitter and struck out eight batters in her first shutout of the season Tuesday, helping lead the Lumberjacks past Aitkin 10-0 in six innings during a Section 7AA playoff softball opener at Braun Park.
The relief pitcher has been seeing a lot more duty, as McMillen moved into the starting role when senior ace Chandler Beaupre went down with a sprained arch in her left foot more than a week ago.
Since then, McMillen — a team-first, bulldog-minded hurler who varies speeds and locations often with her fastball, curve and changeup — not only blanked the Gobblers Tuesday, but pitched Cloquet (10-4) past host Ashland, Wis., 8-2 Saturday, one day after her best performance, a 3-1 eight-inning loss at Duluth Denfeld last Friday at Wade Stadium.
McMillen allowed a game-winning, two-run, walk-off home run to the hard-hitting Hunters in the game's first extra inning last week, yet Lumberjacks Coach Ron Tondryk was quick to dismiss the fact.
"She pitched marvelous," said Tondryk. "She became a pitcher that game."
In the four games she has pitched this spring, McMillen has won three, posting a total of 27 strikeouts in 30 innings with just a minuscule 1.87 earned run average. Learning how to pitch in fifth grade from her father, Mike, Kaylee McMillen explained Tuesday that previous confidence issues with her consistency haven't affected her, helping her throw with the right mindset now.
"I'm not thinking as much," McMillen said. "I trust myself more."
Her teammates trust her, too. Senior shortstop Katrina Smith, who had three hits Tuesday, has been playing alongside McMillen for five years. She said McMillen has always been enjoyable to play behind.
"It's fun to watch when she kills everyone with her change-ups," Smith said with a laugh. "[Kaylee] has definitely stepped up for us and pitched well. She always helps the team — wherever she's playing."
The Lumberjacks got multiple hits from Smith, Makayla Langenbrunner, Sammy Zeadow and Kassidy Steen Tuesday.
Playing Thursday in a noon quarterfinal with Virginia at Cohasset, the Lumberjacks are seeking a return to the Section 7AA championship for a fourth straight year, held next week at Braun Park.
Perhaps even a trip back to North Mankato's Class AA state tournament is in the cards for Cloquet, like in 2012, a team a then-freshman McMillen played on as a courtesy runner.
"Most of us were just runners," McMillen said. "But now we want to play the field more."
With the likely return of Beaupre as soon as today, McMillen could possibly play her normal position of right field down the stretch, but don't tell that to Tondryk.
"That's a good one-two punch," said Tondryk of Beaupre's power and McMillen's craftiness in the circle.
"I tip my cap to Kaylee," Tondryk continued. "She's worked her tail off for years and has really stepped up to the plate for us."
"Coaches tell me what to do and I have no complaints," McMillen added. "I'm just doing my job."
Abbey Saralampi did her job when pitching Esko past host Mora 4-1 Tuesday, as the senior right-hander not only scattered seven hits and struck out three within the circle, but knocked in the eventual game-winning run during the first inning, scoring Ashley Bergerson.
Bergerson, a junior shortstop, as well as senior catcher Morgan Pera, each had multiple hits for the Eskomos (9-6), which never trailed against the higher-seeded Mustangs.
"It was the best game we played all year," said Esko Coach Brad Emanuel, whose team next takes on top-seeded and defending Section 7AA champion Hermantown today, Thursday, at 4 p.m. in Cohasset, just two weeks after losing 11-1 to the Hawks in five innings. "We've played them before, but hey, now we're at ground zero."
Zeroed in and also making some noise in Section 7AA is Moose Lake-Willow River. With their 12-2 opening-round creaming of Crosby-Ironton Tuesday in Willow River, the red-hot Rebels (13-2) have won six straight games in less than a week.
During that time, ML-WR Coach Kelly Goeb — whose freshman daughter, Ally Bode, pitched to Tuesday's five-inning victory — personally purchased her team medals for winning the Polar League unbeaten and outright.
"We're pretty jacked up," said senior third baseman Andrea Youngberg, who had a double and knocked in four runs against the Rangers. "We just want to show that we're here and give [our opponents] a run for their money."
The Rebels will play today, Thursday, in a 4 p.m. quarterfinal at Cohasset with International Falls
In Section 5A, both Barnum (4-7) and Cromwell-Wright's (1-13) runs have ended, as the Bombers were beaten at Ogilvie 8-6 Tuesday. The same day, the Cardinals couldn't keep up with East Central in a 17-7 defeat that lasted only six innings.
Meanwhile, in Section 7A, South Ridge rallied by Northland-Remer 4-3 Tuesday in Culver, as the host Panthers (6-5) produced two season-saving runs in the bottom of the sixth. Sophomore Krystal Karppinen scored on junior Mikayla Olesiak's bunt to back sophomore Mallory Thibault's school-record 18 strikeouts.
Looking at strikeouts, dominant junior righty Grace Macor added to her count Tuesday, as Carlton (14-1) cruised past Cook County 7-1 in their Section 7A opener at Chub Lake Park. The visiting Vikings were the same team the Bulldogs were upset by last year at home when Macor missed the game due to illness.
"I'm just really glad I didn't have the flu today," Macor said.