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Carlton concludes special season on the diamond

Carlton freshman Raeann Barney throws a pitch during Thursday's Class A quarterfinal against New York Mills. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 2
Carlton freshman Abby Mickle swings for one of her two hits in Thursday's Class A quarterfinal softball game against New York Mills. Carlton fell 10-4. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal2 / 2

Mille Groth hadn't played organized softball since her preteen years, yet this spring the Carlton junior decided to give the diamond another try.

And let's just say after this first-ever high school season of hers, she'll make an encore.

Who wouldn't after the Bulldogs posted their most memorable run in school history, ending at last week's Class A state softball tournament? For Carlton, a school of just 139 students, it was their first trip ever to Caswell Park in North Mankato, Minn.

"I was expecting it to be fun, but I definitely didn't expect it to be this fun," admitted Groth, the team's centerfielder. "It was the best experience of my life."

Many would have to agree, Carlton carded five consecutive win-or-go-home victories in the section playoffs en route to the state's pinnacle, just one loss away from elimination. And to cap it off, they shocked the seven-time defending champion Cherry, topping the Tigers not just once, but incredibly twice in the Section 7A finals.

"We wanted to end their streak and start ours," said freshman catcher Alaina Bennett of their 5-4 and 9-7 wins over the reigning title holders two weeks ago.

"It was their goal to get to state and they did what they had to do to get there," added coach Melissa Clark. "(Cherry) has been the team to beat for so long. We had to beat them twice, but we were determined and got the job done."

That success seemed to continue for the Bulldogs (24-6) on a steamy, sun-splashed afternoon Thursday, when they scored three runs in the opening inning of their state quarterfinal with New York Mills. Looking to shake any kind of nerves early, Groth, Bennett and freshman Abby Mickle all came across the plate for a 3-0 lead.

Yet, the eventual state champion Eagles soared on, scoring runs in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings to win going away, 10-4, including a five-run fifth inning. Freshman Raeann Barney — who was so dominant throughout their Section 7A title run — was the losing pitcher, and the Bulldogs committed four errors.

Those errors continued in their consolation nightcap, as Carlton's three miscues in the top of the first led to all five of Pillager's runs in an eventual 5-4 season-ending defeat in which a late rally ended short. This time, freshman Brynne Mickle — Abby's twin sister — was the losing hurler. Barney struck out eight in relief.

Still, their 0-2 offing wasn't the talk of the three-hour bus ride home.

"Win or lose, we wanted to make the most of this," said Bennett. "It was a great experience and not one that everyone gets to experience."

Still, the future appears bright for Carlton. Clark didn't have a single senior on her roster, while she started seven freshmen. Now that's a fountain of youth.

One can only imagine how scary this team may be next spring, or the spring after, or the spring after.

"Hopefully next time we can get down there, do some damage and make a name for ourselves," said Bennett.

One could argue that they've already done that, getting their small school to where it's never been. Clark, a 2010 Carlton graduate, sure is proud to have helped her alma mater achieve new heights and knows something special is looming if her girls continue the work habits they already have.

"I'll remember this," Clark said. "Hopefully the girls keep this fresh in their minds and have the drive to want to accomplish a little bit more every year."

Speaking of next year, Groth — who was a team-best 5-for-7 and scored four of Carlton's eight runs in the tournament — said she'll be back on her new favorite diamond again.

"Most definitely," she said. "This was such an amazing feeling."