CARLTON—A talented enough player to crack a softball over the fence and fearless enough to run through it the next inning from her spot in centerfield, Melissa Clark started her prep varsity career as an eighth-grader in Carlton.
So it is only fitting that the now 24-year-old, in her first-ever season coaching at her alma mater, is bringing the Bulldogs into this spring with plenty of youth.
Clark — a 2010 Carlton graduate who eventually went on to play for a pair of national championship teams at Itasca Community College and later at the University of Wisconsin-Superior — said before Monday’s practice at Four Seasons Complex that she will have a handful of young varsity difference makers — all who still can’t drive.
Mixing with senior stalwarts in catcher Hannah Benson and shortstop Macy Belich is a quintet of eighth-graders, including twin sisters Brynn and Abby Mickle, Taylor Nelson, Alaina Bennett and Nicole Nilsen — all as starters.
“They’re young and have room for improvement and a lot of things to learn,” said Clark of perhaps the youngest varsity lineup in the region. “But they’re good athletes and talented.”
Talented may be an understatement. Both the Mickles were on the varsity diamond last spring. The twins were also — along with Bennett — on the varsity volleyball and basketball roster already this school year. Nelson, too, was a volleyball standout and member of the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls hockey team while Nilsen played junior varsity volleyball.
On top of that, Benson is one of the area’s best sluggers with home-run power, and Belich is a smooth-moving infielder set to play collegiate volleyball at UW-River Falls next year. Both seniors played with the young cast all fall and have no concerns this spring.
“They learn very fast, so I think we’ll be pretty solid again,” said Belich of a softball program that is a seasonal Section 7A contender accustomed to deep runs in late May.
That could surely be the case again, as Brynn Mickle takes over the pitching duties for longtime hurler Grace Macor, now at St. Scholastica. Her sister is an outfielder, while both Bennett and Nelson help round out the infield.
That only makes Clark, who is taking over for former coach Callie Langdon, all the more optimistic.
“It’s been great, I just love it,” Clark said as one still able to clear the fence with her swing — having sent several balls over the fence already. “I just liked giving it my all and being aggressive. It’s the same thing I want to teach.”
“She knows the sport and is dedicated,” said Benson, one who also began her varsity career in eighth grade. “She’s intense and teaching us to give it 100 percent all of the time.”
Benson, who has hit the ball off the scoreboard herself in seasons past, remembers watching Clark play when she was growing up around Chub Lake Park.
“I played a few summer games with her and remember thinking about how good she was,” recalled Benson. “I saw her hit a few over and I was just in awe when I was younger.”
Benson said Clark still has the same powerful swing.
“She still has it,” cracked Benson, “no doubt.”
Next Monday the Bulldogs are set for their season- and home-opener against Mountain Iron-Buhl, weather permitting. If they don’t play, Clark will surely still be coaching them up.
“She helps us a lot,” said Belich. “She was a good player.”
Also in Section 7A sits South Ridge, a confident club with a cast of veterans, including seniors Krystal Karppinen, Mallory Thibault and Lindsey Janke for veteran coach Tim Anvid.
Janke tore her anterior cruciate ligament and missed all of last season, but Anvid said she is fully healthy now. Meanwhile, Thibault is the team’s main arm in the circle, while freshman Celia Olesiak will also assist. Anvid also noted the return of senior infielder Dominique Rossing, adding to their depth.
“Top to bottom this would be one of the better teams I’ve had,” Anvid said. “If we play our game, we’ll be alright.”
While the Panthers have yet to practice on their field, Barnum has only been on dirt once according to second-year coach Dustin Collelo Monday night after another indoor practice.
With only a single batting net, Collelo said his Bombers are itching to get outside, especially returning athletes such as senior Emma Koski, junior Bailey Wheeler, sophomores Liz Carlson and Lea Peterson and freshman Mallory Agurkis — many of whom play both basketball and softball for Collelo.
While Barnum has athletes who can hit, especially Koski’s fence-clearing power, pitching will be vital to the Bombers.
Senior Jaden Lind will log most innings, with Koski in relief.
“It’s a good athletic group,” said Collelo, whose team’s season-opener at Rush City Tuesday was cancelled by weather. “We can hit and field, but it’s all about pitching.”
In terms of pitching over in Cromwell-Wright, one sister replaces the other, as longtime varsity cog Kaylan Risacher graduated and has handed the ball on to her younger sibling, Elizabeth.
The younger Risacher, just a freshman, actually earned one of the Cardinals’ three victories last spring — the most wins in a season for now fourth-year coach Terry Sawdey.
Sawdey admitted along with being the team’s top hurler that Risacher is also the team’s most talented catcher. Not being able to play both positions, sophomore standout Amber Lehti — regarded as the squad’s strongest swinger — will like help ease the void.
As for the Risachers, by the time Elizabeth graduates in 2019, Sawdey will have had each of the siblings on his team for all seven of his years.
“I’ll take ’em,” said Sawdey with a laugh Monday night.