On the diamond, Carlton relays its softball team’s signs through an ever-more-popular system, each player wearing a black wristband with all of their secret plays numbered.
But the Bulldogs all have a specific number on their minds right now.
"Two more and we're there," said first-year Carlton coach Melissa Clark about the number of wins her girls need to advance to the school's first state softball tournament in recent memory.
Still, a lot has to happen between now and later next week, especially with the Bulldogs’ — or for that matter, any school's — biggest challenge, in six-time defending champion Cherry. Washed away Tuesday by rain, the two teams squared off Wednesday when this edition of the Pine Journal went to press, with the winner sitting in today's Section 7A final at Cohasset.
For the Bulldogs (16-6) and Tigers (18-4) so far, the path through playoffs has been different. While Cherry, winners of 16 straight, cruised by Silver Bay 10-1 and South Ridge 11-1 last Thursday at Braun Park in Cloquet, Carlton came out of two much-closer contests, nipping Nashwauk-Keewatin 7-4 and Ely 6-5 before that.
Especially against Ely, times were tense. The Bulldogs trailed seemingly all afternoon, including 5-3 in the final inning, never to get any momentum started against the No. 4 Timberwolves. That all changed when Hannah Benson knocked in Macy Belich — the pair are the team’s only seniors — before embracing for a joyous hug while a park-loud roar from a contingency of Carlton-crazed fans blared in the nearby bleachers.
"We went right to each other," said Belich of finding Benson immediately after her season-saving hit. "We're going to lay it all on the field. I hope it all comes together and we make a good run."
The Bulldogs can thank the Tigers for ending a number of those runs in years past. Cherry won a Class A state title in 2012 and has been traveling to Caswell Park in North Mankato, Minn., year-in and year-out for over the past five years. On several occasions, Carlton was in that section final.
"We hope we can finally beat them our senior year," said Belich.
That could happen, but Cherry — coached by veteran Darrell Bjerklie — is the ultimate competitor. His girls play intelligent softball, they get ahead, and are rarely ever behind.
However, a May 9 game was the exception when the Tigers trailed the Bulldogs 4-2 entering the final inning, only to score three times and win 5-4.
"They're smart, but I think we can do the same," Benson said.
Perhaps the smartest game plan would be to get Benson to the plate as often as possible. Although aided by Belich — who will play volleyball at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls next fall — as well as a contingent of up-and-coming eighth-graders, Benson carries the biggest bat on this team.
Seen hitting balls off scoreboards in her past, the right-handed Benson — also the team's sure-handed catcher who has caught every pitch this spring — has several home runs in her career, including two more this season. Hoping for a couple more at the right time this week, Benson's plan at the plate isn't tactical like her black wristband, but simplistic and old-school.
"If it's there, I'm swinging," she said with a laugh.
"She's been there for us all season long," said Clark. "Even with two outs, she can usually produce a hit and keep us rolling. I just wish I could coach her for longer."
Clark will have twin eighth-grade pitchers Abby and Brynn Mickle for a long time, as well as several other youthful starters. While Abby got the victory over Nashwauk-Keewatin, Brynn pitched the win to edge Ely. Classmate Taylor Nelson also had multiple hits.
Not minding their shaky performance last week, Clark remains confident entering their biggest week yet.
"They don't give up," said Clark, upbeat about anyone her young team faces. "I think if we come out and play like we can, we have a very good shot."
South Ridge, meanwhile, took a shot against Cherry last week, falling in just five innings. After a 5-4 win over Littlefork-Big Falls to begin the afternoon, the Panthers — which actually beat the Tigers 2-0 on April 22 — just couldn't keep pace with the Tigers in the rematch.
Despite defeat, senior hurler Mallory Thibault remained optimistic this week, as she and her teammates took on the Timberwolves Wednesday, needing three straight elimination victories to get to the final today, Thursday, June 2.
"We're definitely able to do it," she said Tuesday night after practice was canceled. "Coach said to rest up because we're going to be winning three games [Wednesday]."
Barnum (9-11), meanwhile, didn't win any games last Thursday, falling 9-1 to Nashwauk-Keewatin and 27-10 in a football-like score against Ely. Although allowing 22 runs in two innings by the Timberwolves during a game that was so long that darkness became a factor, Bombers coach Dustin Collelo stayed positive afterward.
"We saw some good things [this year]. I think we maximized where we could go," Collello said. "You can hit, hit, hit, but you have to have pitching."