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Thunder's Sylvester returns to softball, this time to coach

Coach Laura Sylvester watches Shania Paulson practice in the gym early Tuesday morning. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 2
Shania Paulson pitches to April Broneak. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 2

There are days at softball practice where Laura Sylvester watches her team and remembers when she played third base years ago.

Sylvester is now the energetic base of the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College women's softball program, as the upbeat 29-year-old enters her first season as the coach of the Thunder.

Sylvester, also the college's volleyball coach and assistant athletic director, was hired for her newest position at the beginning of the school year when former coach Kerry Rodd -- the Thunder's first coach when the program began in 2008 -- retired at the end of his fifth season.

A four-sport athlete at AlBrook High School before graduating in 2001, Sylvester played volleyball and basketball and was a steady third baseman while also running track and field in the spring.

"Softball has always been something I've loved to play," Sylvester said Monday night. "I've been enjoying every bit of this. It's been fun for me to put the pieces of the puzzle back together."

With just nine players on their roster, FDLTCC has minimal pieces with which to play. The Thunder, winners of just eight of its 30 games last season, have been working inside at the gymnasium since January and have yet to practice or play outside.

"It's been a positive thing," Sylvester said, noting she learns as much as her players do. "We've been working a lot of individual technique and making use of our time. We've hit off tees, the machine, live, and taken grounders -- pop flies are still tough though."

The Thunder is off to a tough start in a young season, with just one win in their first six games, all of which were played at the Minnesota Classic at the Rosemount Irish Dome two weeks ago.

Cloquet graduate Denise Rodd was the winning pitcher, going the distance in the team's 5-4 win over Anoka-Ramsey. Although the sophomore right-hander said the season has been a slow-going process, Rodd said Sylvester has been supportive throughout.

"She's always positive -- always wanting us to learn, succeed and improve," Rodd said. "It's hard to get things accomplished in the gym, but she keeps focused and works well with each player."

Along with Rodd, Sylvester highlighted Cloquet's Shania Paulson at third base and Esko's Savannah Hanson at shortstop, adding Carlton's Alana Groth and April Broneak will also contribute. Moose Lake's Natasha Dragicevich can hit and Cromwell-Wright's Dayna Elmer has been a sturdy starter at catcher again.

With still several inches of snow at the college, Sylvester said they hope to again play next Wednesday with Mesabi Range in the team's home opener at Braun Park -- a venue Paulson loves most.

"It's like my second home, I live less than a mile away," said Paulson, a freshman, who played four years of varsity at Cloquet. "I've umpired games, watched games and played there even before third grade, I think. I've basically been up there my entire life."

"She has a lot of passion for the game -- she loves it, no matter what," added Sylvester of Paulson. "She's a fun kid, so energetic."

Much like when Sylvester played, and now how she coaches.