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Pushing through pain, hoping for a Rebel reign

Suzy Grutkoski (from left) Ally Bode, Morgan Prachar and Jessica Paull all return to the Moose Lake-Willow River softball team this spring. The confident quartet, among with others, is a major reason why the Rebels are regarded as one of the most talented teams around. Tyler Korby/

WILLOW RIVER—Forced to watch the Moose Lake-Willow River softball team’s final three games from behind the fence instead of the plate last spring, catcher Morgan Prachar promised herself she’d be back for her senior season.

Even if that meant injecting her right knee with additional blood to temporarily relieve the game-caller’s tendonitis pain.

Prachar, despite not being fully healthy, injects instant talent to an already skillful ML-WR club returning nearly its entire lineup card from a team that finished 18-6 a season ago.

Prachar’s battery mate, fireball-hurling right-handed pitcher Ally Bode is also back, along with senior Jessica Paull and sophomore leadoff hitter Suzy Grutkoski.

Prachar, junior Bode and Grutkoski were All-Polar League picks a season ago, while fellow veterans Lauren Pederson and Marissa Mikrot — as well as Bode — provide over-the-fence power.

Yet, it’s Prachar who is likely happiest to return in red.

Trying to gut it out last year, Prachar simply couldn’t fight the damaged and loose tendons that caused her knee to constantly buckle and dislocate last spring, finishing the season as a cheerleader before having arthroscopic surgery in June. The 5-foot-5 fleet-footed athlete then skipped this winter’s basketball season and focused on physical therapy, which she still attends once per week in Wyoming, Minn. The blood injections help, but are only occasional for Prachar, who admitted she still has discomfort before saying she definitely won’t miss this season.

“I’ll definitely be pushing through pain,” said Prachar, pointing at her wobbly tendons between Monday afternoon’s practice in the Willow River School gymnasium. “[Last year] broke my heart, I went home crying. This time I refuse to get to that state. Being down catching gives me as much a rush as somebody climbing Mount Everest and reaching the top.”

The Rebels — led by fourth-year coach Kelly Goeb (who is also Bode’s mother) — could certainly be on top of Section 7AA in June.

With the state’s newly-created, four-level classification system, former section dominators Hermantown and Cloquet have moved up, while powerful Pequot Lakes went to 6AA.

Things bode well (pun intended) with Bode as the team’s leader in average, hits, triples, doubles and with a Northland-best 246 strikeouts last spring — ML-WR has a chance to advance to their cooperative school’s first state tournament since winning it all via Annie Adamczak in 1982.

“Hopefully, you never know,” said Bode with a big smile. “If we’re all clicking, maybe we could take it all the way.”

Her mom spoke positively as well. Still, having only been on their home field in Willow River a few times before their (weather-permitting) season-opener today (Thursday, April 7) against Pine City, the coach wasn’t making any bold predictions.

“We’d like to think we’re in the mix, and we’ll just leave it at that,” she said, the batting cage firing in the background.

Speaking of batting, ML-WR brings back their top seven swingers, the same ones who make Goeb stand behind a net at practice.

“And I still flinch,” cracked Goeb.

“They’re killing the ball,” she continued about a group that she has coached since their elementary school days. “It’s fitting I’m here — it’s special to me. They’re a good group.”

“We’re all friends and have a good bond,” Grutkoski added. “We all know the game, love it and are all having fun.”

Including Prachar, pushing her pain for a Rebels’ reign.

“It’ll be good to have her back there,” Goeb said.

“If I can’t catch, I’ll be cheerleading,” added Prachar, saying she will be in her gear again on Thursday. “Even in pain, I’ll be down there. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Also in 7AA is fellow Polar League competitor Esko, which could surely rival the Rebels in the mix under first-year coach Huff Emanuel, taking over from one-season-coach Brenna Zavodnik.

Emanuel, assisted by his older brother and former Esko coach Brad Emanuel, watched his team take to the field in the area’s only game so far, when the Eskomos eased by host Aitkin 12-1 in six innings Monday afternoon.

Sophomore slinger Emilee Wilson was the winning pitcher, allowing just two hits in going the distance. Wilson, a right-hander, is a key reason the Eskomos are a section threat.

Along with Wilson comes sophomore catcher Davriana Horvath, juniors Mac Holland, Taylor Robinson and Huff Emanuel’s speedy left-handed daughter, Elle, a senior. Eighth-grader Kristy DeMuth also hit a three-run homer Monday.

Assisting for six years prior, Emanuel is excited for the season, which also features all its home games on the school’s new field.

“It’s just a natural fit,” said Emanuel, noting his Eskomos only graduated Ashley Bergerson from last year’s team.

Cloquet meanwhile, graduated several players — including now assistant Jade Benko — but brings back plenty of athletes.

Juniors Erin Dahnke and Lindsey Lamirande along with freshmen Allie Wojtysiak and Shelby Peil played all 24 games and return to a team that was 15-9 a season ago, while seniors Mak Langenbrunner and Kassidy Steen head a team moving up to 7AAA thanks to the state’s new classification system.

Langenbrunner, the second-cousin of former NHL star Jamie Langenbrunner, led the Lumberjacks in seven statistical categories last year, while Steen, a future St. Cloud State basketball player, hit five homers, for eight in her career.

“Those two types of players don’t come around too often,” said seventh-year coach Ron Tondryk in the gym after practice Monday, noting the team has yet to practice outside at Braun Park thanks to Mother Nature. “It’s going to be a fun year just watching them play.”