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Southern Carlton County team grows through summer softball

Erin Dahnke of the Minnesota Blast U16 team slides in safely at second base as the Moose Lake Mustangs Suzy Grutkoski fields the ball. Dan Saletel/news@pinejournal.com 1 / 4
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Amber Lehti of Moose Lake Mustangs makes her way to home plate Tuesday night against the Silver Bay Mariners. Dan Saletel/news@pinejournal.com3 / 4
Moose Lake Mustangs pitcher Lilli Skelton delivers a pitch during Tuesday night’s game against the Silver Bay Mariners. Dan Saletel/news@pinejournal.com4 / 4

Moose Lake and Willow River have teamed up to field a young and growing softball program this summer.

The Moose Lake-Willow River North States Crane and Hoist team boasts 14 local players in both the U-16 and U-14 age brackets, cutting their teeth this summer against some high-level competition.

“Of our 14 players, six of them could play U-14s,” coach Tonya Benzie said. “Their learning curve is steep but they are getting some good experience.”

The team picked up its third win of the summer Tuesday night in the first game of the Lake Superior Fast Pitch League’s postseason tournament at Braun Park. The young players defeated Silver Bay 9-3 in their first game before losing to Cloquet’s U-16 Minnesota Blast 7-2 in the second game.

“The Silver Bay game was a very good one for us,” Benzie said. “We broke the game open in the third inning.”

In that frame, the team scored six runs thanks in part to a big RBI double from Amber Lehti, one of two players from Cromwell on the team.

“Amber has been our No. 4 hitter this summer and does that often for us,” Benzie said. “She got a hold of one and helped us to a big inning.”

Lilli Skelton was the winning pitcher but couldn’t start the second game thanks to taking a line drive off her shin late in the Silver Bay game. She pitched in relief against the Blast.

“Lilli has worked very hard this summer and has been very consistent,” Benzie added. “She throws (pitches) in there nicely. But she’ll have a bruise for a few days after getting hit. That’s softball.”

Skelton pitched for the Rebels’ junior varsity this spring, backed up the varsity and will be a sophomore this fall.

Benzie’s youngest daughter, Jamie, had two hits and scored a run in the first game, while Lehti was two for three with a pair of doubles.

In the second game, catcher Rachel Christy had a pair of hits in a loss to a good Blast team.

“This is a fun group,” Benzie added. “These players are growing into their roles, they like each other and they do things off the field. They are having a barbecue next month and will do a trip to Valleyfair. And thanks to our sponsors we have new uniforms so there’s a lot to be happy about.”

The team was set to play at Duluth’s Wheeler/Wade complex in its post-season Wednesday evening as the Pine Journal went to press, but the goal for this group is growth.

“It’s definitely about player development,” Benzie said. “It’s been a lot of fun. I have two daughters on the team and to see everyone improve and have a good time while doing it has been great. Our support from parents and sponsors has been very good.”

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