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A weekend of softball...for Ashley

Minnesota Blast 14's Payton Anderson stretches to reach second before Blast 13's shortstop Keagen Anderson can make the tag during the Ashley Abrahamson Tournament on Sunday. 1 / 8
Lucy Sinkkonen pitches for the Cloquet USG U12 softball team at the Ashley Abrahamson tournament at Braun Park on Sunday. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com2 / 8
Abigail Mickle pitches for the Carlton/Wrenshall U12 softball team at the Ashley Abrahamson tournament at Braun Park on Sunday. Dave Harwig/ 3 / 8
Tanya Moe pitches for the Minnesota Blast U14 during the Ashley Abrahamson Tournament at Braun Park on Sunday. 4 / 8
Raeann Barney pitches for the Minnesota Blast U13 team at the Ashley Abrahamson Tournament at Braun Park on Sunday. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com5 / 8
Alyssa Merrill hits for the Minnesota Blast U13s during the Ashley Abrahamson Tournament at Braun Park on Sunday. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com6 / 8
Minnesota Blast U13's Keagen Anderson makes a leaping catch of a line drive during an Ashley Abrahamson Tournament game vs the Blast U14's at Braun Park on Sunday.7 / 8
Merle Kelley coaches the Cloquet U12 USG team during the Ashley Abrahamson Tournament at Braun Park on Sunday. Dave Harwig/news@pinejournal.com8 / 8

CLOQUET—When watching the Minnesota Blast 13-and-Under softball team, one will often see Marissa Steltz standing at the dugout fence cheering.

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Last Sunday afternoon, however, it was the shy, blonde-haired 13-year-old Cloquet Middle School right fielder herself who heard all of the cheers from along the fence.

For her positive, team-first attitude and always-supportive ways, Steltz was one of 23 girls selected by her coaches as an Ashley Award winner during the 15th Annual Ashley Abrahamson Memorial Softball Tournament this past weekend at Braun Park in Cloquet.

“I was so surprised, so happy — I almost cried,” admitted Steltz of the award that honors Ashley, a talented three-sport, student athlete from Cloquet who loved to play softball, but was tragically killed in a car accident in Illinois in 2000 at the age of 13. “It was pretty special.”

Perhaps one of the most special events of her young life, Steltz shared photos and hugs with her mother, Tara Ninneman, and coach, Tyler Korby, on the field after the ceremony. Having played in Duluth for eight years prior to coming to Cloquet, last weekend was Steltz’s first Ashley event, and she enjoyed it greatly.

That’s because every year, it’s a first-class production.

Close friends, neighbors and teammates before the accident, Sarah Wondrasek and her father, Ron Tondryk — Ashley’s former coach — created the tournament in Ashley’s honor. Tondryk and his daughter directed things again last weekend, accepting rosters, posting scores and, ultimately, watching all 23 dual-division teams play ball.

“It means a lot every summer,” said Wondrasek, 27, who lives in St. Louis Park, Minn., yet still travels north on the last weekend in June to honor her good friend. “Just having the Abrahamson family there and all of the girls there — it’s just nice when you see it all come together.”

“It’s just fun to see all of the kids play,” added Tondryk, noting over 4,000 girls have played in the weekend tourney since it first started in Scanlon in 2000. “It’s amazing.”

Ashley’s parents, Jim and Kathy Abrahamson, were again on hand all weekend from start to finish. Saturday afternoon, the Abrahamson family — taking up over half the infield — joined the parade of teams, where a ceremonial pitch was caught by Cloquet 13-year-old Josie Steen. To begin the morning, Jim and Kathy also greeted all players with the souvenir of a traditional purple T-shirt.

“To see those shirts on a field in Eveleth, or down in the Cities, the girls know who Ashley is,” Tondryk said.

In addition to the commemorative T-shirts, Jim and Kathy also helped award medals to teams on Sunday evening, while that afternoon they presented the Ashley Award, given to one player from each team who best represents who their daughter was as a player and a person.

Cloquet’s Ally Martin, a 14-year-old first baseman for the Minnesota Blast U-14 squad, received the award and, like Steltz, was surprised she heard her name called.

“Just to be recognized as who she was meant a lot,” said Martin, who was born just several months before Ashley’s accident. “It was pretty unreal to feel that way.”

Playing ball since day one, Martin said the Ashley tournament is her most cherished event. Her father, Steve, is her coach, her older sister Hailey worked in the concession stand owned by her aunt and uncle, Kim and John Lind, and family members and grandparents watched games all weekend.

“The Ashley is my favorite,” Ally Martin said. “Everyone is basically a family up there at Braun Park.”

According to Tondryk, this past weekend was one of the wettest on record, and Wondrasek had a hard time remembering if it had ever rained at Braun for the event. A grounds crew comprised of Cloquet coaches, family members and volunteers brought the park back to life after two heavy rain delays and one half-hour lightning stoppage with hail.

Tondryk even squeegeed some water off the deep infield and short outfield to get the altered 60-minute games back on track.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a rain delay,” said Wondrasek. “We’ve been pretty lucky.”

Rain and all, 65 games were played in two days and the St. Cloud Rox Gold won the Tier One championship in U-14, while the Esko Fury took home the Tier Two title. The Blast 13’s were the highest finishing U-14 team locally, placing fourth overall, and facing the elder Blast 14’s in Sunday’s quarterfinals, winning the contest 3-1.

In U-12, Northwestern was awarded the championship medals, defeating top local finisher Carlton. Cloquet USG, coached by Merle Kelley, won the consolation, edging the Cloquet Crushers 6-3 in another game of all Cloquet girls.

“The girls had a great time — they just loved it,” Kelley added. “They were still talking about it on Monday.”