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Sun starting to shine on summer softball

Cloquet's Kaylee McMillen (right) pitches for the Minnesota Blast at Wade Stadium on Tuesday night. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 3
Third baseman Kayla Garson makes a play for the Esko Impact. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal2 / 3
Carlton's Grace Macor pitches for the Silver Bullets. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal3 / 3

Watching his Minnesota Blast softball team answer with two victories Tuesday night, Coach Kerry Rodd said he more thoroughly enjoyed the questions he was asked throughout the evening.

"They're always asking questions," said Rodd of the Blast, an 18-and-under Cloquet varsity-based traveling program that includes two Carlton and Cromwell-Wright players. "These Blast kids are always excited to learn. That's the fun."

The Blast had fun edging the Minnesota Xplosion 7-5 and then thumping the Esko Impact 13-1 in five innings Tuesday at the Wade Stadium in Duluth, as the fourth-year unit of Cloquet kids continues to challenge themselves, Rodd said.

"We really want to take them out of their comfort zone, so come next spring, they're not afraid to succeed," said Rodd, a longtime softball coach who was asked to return to the Lumberjacks' program after retirement. "I'm confident with what they can do against anybody."

The Blast are centered by Cloquet ace pitcher Chandler Beaupre and steady catcher Jade Benko, and include nine other Cloquet veterans who have now played together for several summers. Benko, who caught both victories Tuesday, is in her fourth season for the Blast, while her younger sister, Jystine, plays 12-and-under summer softball for Cloquet.

"Usually all of our conversations are about softball," said Jade about her family, with a laugh. "If you look at our calendar, there's not one day without softball written on it."

Meanwhile, CHS softball coach Ron Tondryk coaches the Minnesota Dynamite, and Tyler Korby heads the Minnesota Blast, both 14-and-under programs based entirely in Cloquet. Tondryk noted all are working hard, improving skills and shadowing the elder Blast.

"We've always had kids to show them the way, and now it's their turn," said Tondryk of the Blast. "They enjoy the game, want to be here and want to get better. That makes it pretty fun to watch them. And easy for us coaches."

Korby also coaches the 18-and-under Minnesota Silver Bullets, featuring Carlton pitcher-catcher duo Grace Macor and Hannah Benson, while Esko pitcher Abbey Saralampi is playing for Duluth's Dirty Dozen, along with Esko catcher Morgan Pera.

Cloquet's Steve Jezierski again heads the Minnesota Xplosion, and Huff Emanuel coaches the Esko Impact.

All in all, the Lake Superior Fastpitch League, with 72 teams within five separate age levels, goes four nights a week.

"I've played since I was little -- like fourth grade," said Esko first baseman Shawna Johnson, who also balances her two jobs around softball. "But it's definitely my favorite."