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Bulldogs claw their way to 7A championship

Carlton freshman Alaina Bennett scores a run against Cherry in the Section 7A finals Thursday. Carlton defeated Cherry twice to claim the section title. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 2
Carlton junior Ameilia Groth slides safely into home in Carlton's 5-4 win over Cherry in the first of two Section 7A championship games June 1. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 2

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In the sixth inning of last Thursday's Section 7A championship softball game at Braun Park, Carlton coach Melissa Clark felt secure enough to take a page out of her opponent's playbook.

The Bulldogs executed a letter-perfect suicide squeeze to score their second run of the inning against Cherry — and then held on to dethrone the seven-time defending section champion Tigers 9-7, earning the school's first trip to the state tournament.

The victory also avenged a loss to the Tigers in last season's championship game.

"They were so happy and proud of themselves for beating a good team back-to-back," said Clark, a 2010 Carlton graduate. "The biggest thing was that our kids didn't put (Cherry) on a pedestal."

Treating the Tigers like any other team was the key to it all for Carlton (23-4), which will now face Section 6 champion New York Mills (22-2) at 1 p.m. today, Thursday, June 8, in the state Class A quarterfinals.

"These kids didn't show their age when they were in the field," Clark said. The Bulldogs started six freshmen in the title game and have no seniors on the roster. "They were so level-headed."

The Tigers have dominated Section 7A for years by putting other teams under pressure and making opponents make plays. The Bulldogs hung right with them in the finals, though, coming through the losers' bracket to claim the title.

In the first game, Carlton led it late — Deanna Wallin drove in freshman Alaina Bennett with the winning run in the top of the seventh for a 5-4 victory. Raeann Barney scattered seven hits and struck out six to earn the win, with Ava Grondahl and Millie Groth each cracking a pair of hits.

That set up the winner-take-all second game and, like neighbors Esko in Class 7AA, the Bulldogs came through when it mattered the most.

In the second game, Carlton found its hitting shoes. The Bulldogs exploded for four runs in the fourth, and added a single run in the fifth and two more in the sixth, capped by the suicide squeeze. Trailing 9-6 in the seventh inning, the Tigers scored once but Barney retired the side with the tying run at the plate — facing her 72nd batter of the day.

"Games like that aren't good for my blood pressure," Clark said, "but I felt more confident in the second game than I did in the first. We controlled most of the second game and were starting to hit our stride."

Barney allowed 11 hits in the second game but struck out seven. Ally Hoeffling scored three runs and drove in two more with Groth adding three hits, three runs and an RBI. Bennett drove in four runs for Carlton while Deanna Wallin and Brynne Mickle each added two hits.

And now it's on to state — giving Clark the problem of how to get her very young team in the right frame of mind after an understandably exciting week.

"The nerves are starting to set in," she said. "The players need to find that balance where the nerves don't get them and they play too tight."

But there are some things that can't be coached — and getting over first-time state tournament jitters is one of them.

"You have to get a couple of players on board with what you are trying to do," Clark said. "We can play with those teams — we just beat a seven-time defending champion — and when you get kids to believe that, they jump on the bandwagon.

"I tell the kids not to be satisfied with just getting there," Clark added. "If we play to our potential there isn't a team in the field we can't play with."

But regardless of results, the Bulldogs have already had the best season in their history.

"It's been a great season already," Clark said. "Our goal is always to make a playoff run, but we didn't know if these girls were ready for it yet."

It turns out the answer was a resounding "yes."

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Minnesota Class A Softball Tournament

All games at Caswell Park, North Mankato

THURSDAY, JUNE 8

Quarterfinals

Red Lake Falls (18-8) vs. No. 1 seed Edgerton/SW Minnesota Christian (22-3), 1 p.m.

No. 5 Hayfield (18-6) vs. No. 4 Kimball Area (19-3), 1 p.m.

Carlton (24-4) vs. No. 2 New York Mills (22-2), 1 p.m.

Pillager (17-7) vs. No. 3 Sleepy Eye St. Mary's (22-2), 1 p.m.

Championship semifinals and consolation semifinals: 7 p.m.

FRIDAY, JUNE 9

Consolation final: 9 a.m.

Third place: 11 a.m.

Championship: 2:30 p.m.

About New York Mills — the Eagles (22-2) are playing in their fifth consecutive state tournament and are the Section 6 champions, as well as the second seed in the tournament. Last season, the Eagles lost for the only time in their season in the state quarterfinals against Badger/Greenbush-Middle River but rebounded to claim the consolation championship with a win over Pine River-Backus. New York Mills won its first 16 games of this season before losing to defending Class AA state champion Zumbrota in the Jackson County Central tournament May 13. In their 22 wins, the Eagles have been held below 10 runs only three times, as well as in both their losses. They outscored their four Section 6A opponents by a combined 49-5, including two wins over Brandon/Evansville for the title.

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