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State-bound Bulldogs make it back-to-back

t053118 --- Clint Austin --- 060118.S.DNT.CARLTON.C01 --- Members of the Carlton softball team celebrate after defeating South Ridge 6-0 in the Section 7A final at Braun Park in Cloquet on Thursday, May 31. Carlton advances to the Class A state softball tournament on Thursday, June 7, in Mankato. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 3
t053118 --- Clint Austin --- 060118.S.DNT.CARLTON.C02 --- Abigail Mickle of Carlton steals third base from Marissa Bober of South Ridge during the Section 7A final. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 3
t053118 --- Clint Austin --- 060118.S.DNT.CARLTON.C04 --- Members of the Carlton softball team celebrate after defeating South Ridge 6-0. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 3

When Melissa Clark played for the Carlton softball team up until graduating in 2010, she was a sure-handed centerfielder, helping control the Bulldogs' outfield.

But now Carlton's coach for the past three seasons, even she may have struggled keeping up with her current lineup.

Clark noted that half a dozen of her girls are hitting over .400, while several more Bulldogs are sniffing around it.

That only made life difficult for Carlton's opponents this spring, as they outscored their postseason foes 36-12, including South Ridge 6-0 in the Section 7A championship game Thursday, May 31, at Braun Park en route to back-to-back Class A state softball tournament trips for the Bulldogs.

"We focus on line drives, hitting gaps and getting people on the bases," said Clark, despite noting her squad has slugged almost a dozen home runs this season. "We should not be counted out of games if we are playing our game."

That certainly wasn't the case last week, as Carlton (15-3) cruised to their second section title in as many years in a contest they were never threatened in by the Panthers.

While their offense was of their accustomed prowess at the plate, it was the Bulldogs' defensive work on the diamond that led the way, paced by sophomore pitcher Brynne Mickle.

Despite not being overpowering, the right-handed hurler is always around the plate and surely was against South Ridge, as Mickle kept Panthers guessing and allowed her defense to make play after play in Cloquet.

That's not a surprise to Clark, who used Mickle along with Raeann Barney to advance to the small school's first-ever state tournament last spring. Yet, with Barney no longer on the team, Mickle, also a third baseman, has stepped up.

Brynne's twin sister, Abby, is also a pitcher if needed.

"She's doing everything we ask of her," Clark said of Brynne. "A lot of people may have thought we wouldn't have as good of a shot this season, but we've proved them wrong."

"I told (Brynne) there would be pressure, but she's hit her spots all year, done her job perfectly and we've had her back," added classmate and catcher Alaina Bennett. "State's not a given — there are a lot of teams not practicing anymore. But we did that everything we could to get down there again."

Wide-eyed last year, but now better prepared for the big stage of Caswell Park in North Mankato, Minn., the fifth-seeded Bulldogs are eager for their state quarterfinal with No. 4 Randolph (22-1), seeking their school's best state run ever.

"Last year, we were happy to be there," said senior Ally Hoeffling, "but this year, we're looking to win a state title."

Carlton is scheduled to play Randolph on Thursday, June 7, at 1 p.m.

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