Now entering his eighth year as head coach of the Cloquet girls softball team, Ron Tondryk has seen just about everything spring weather can offer. From April snowstorms a few years ago to the stunning and warm spring this year, the coach is busy prepping his team for their scheduled opening game April 10 at Chisago Lakes.
"We've been in the gym for two weeks, but because of spring break we've had only one week with the full team," Tondryk said. "We have a lot of work to do before our first game in two weeks."
While the Lumberjacks lost two of the area's best players from last year's team, shortstop Mak Langenbrunner and first baseman Kassidy Steen, they return seven starters from a team that finished 15-8 a year ago.
"I don't mind the gym as we can get a lot of fundamentals done for most of the positions," explained Tondryk. "Being indoors hurts mostly the outfielders. The difficult part is making the adjustment from the gym floor to the dirt and grass."
The 'Jacks welcomed 26 players for tryouts including five seniors: Erin Dahnke, Katilin Gillette, Lindsey Lamirande, Courtney Beaupre and Kayla Larson. Dahnke started at second base the past two seasons, Lamirande has been a two-year starter in left field and Gillette has seen starting time at third base and in the outfield. Beaupre and Larson also have seen time at the varsity level both in the field and at the plate.
The Lumberjacks also return a host of underclassmen who played big roles last season. Included in that group are Shelby Peil, Allie Wojtysiak, Keagan Anderson and Kiana Bender. Peil solidified her spot at the starting centerfielder for the past two years and is just a sophomore. Sophomore Libby Rix is another potential outfielder. Wojtysiak, also a sophomore, stepped in last season as a freshman and handled the catching duties after playing both in the infield and outfield as an eighth-grader. Bender, another freshman, handled outfield duties last season and looks to move into the infield as the shortstop this season. Meanwhile, Anderson, who can catch and play the infield, became the starting third baseman as a ninth-grader last season and is a versatile player for Cloquet's lineup.
For Cloquet to make a run in the sectional playoffs they will need strong pitching and the Lumberjacks return a pair of pitchers who made an impact last year. Josie Steen, a sophomore, was the 'Jacks starter for most of the season as a freshman and looks to be joined by ninth-grade hurler Lucy Sinkkonen.
"The main key is to get our pitchers throwing every day," Tondryk said. "We have been in the batting cage on a consistent basis and the hitters need to keep sharp. Now that we have the full team back, we can start working on situations."
Another factor for Cloquet will be finding a starting first baseman. Along with the senior Beaupre the 'Jacks are looking at juniors Ally Martin and Hannah Mitchell. All three possess the ability to hit the ball and Mitchell has played on the left side of the infield while playing on the junior varsity.
"We are bringing back seven girls so the experience of our team should be a strength, along with having another year of experience for our young pitchers," said Tondryk. "Another strength is our team speed, which will be a benefit for the short game."
Adding to the team's depth will be a trio of sophomores: Jystine Benko, Olivia Diver and Grace Dushkin, who are all pushing hard to crack the starting lineup.
"All three of those kids are good ball players and are vying for starting positions on the varsity," Tondryk said. "That kind of depth creates good competition for starting positions and that will only make us better."
On a side note, Tondryk is looking for his 100th career win as a coach for the Lumberjacks as he comes into the season with a 98-53 record.
The Lumberjacks will open the season April 10 at Chisago Lakes and will finally open their home season against Esko April 17.