The spring season means excitement about softball in Cloquet, and this year's version of the Lumberjacks is expected to do nothing to dampen anyone's enthusiasm.

Last year's section finalist team graduated only one senior and returns three experienced pitchers, along with a number of exciting, quick players who figure to make Cloquet one of the teams to beat in northeastern Minnesota.

"This might be one of the fastest teams I've had," coach Ron Tondryk said. "We have impact all up and down the lineup and we have kids who are a year better, which is important."

Last year's team went 16-7 in an abbreviated season and was only one game away from state before falling twice to North Branch in the double-elimination tournament. The Vikings went on to finish as Minnesota Class AAA runners-up, so obviously they're still the team to beat in the section.

That said, Cloquet was one of only three teams to defeat North Branch last year, so there's plenty of reason for optimism.

Junior Lucy Sinkkonen and senior Josie Steen are expected to be the top two pitchers and give Cloquet a 1-2 punch that's as good as anyone's. Sophomore Amanda Paul will give teams a different look - a rare lefthanded pitcher in a sport where every edge you can get is vital.

"Lucy is the No. 1," Tondryk said. "She throws a nice rising ball. Josie we have complete confidence in, and Amanda comes in with a curve ball from a lefthanded pitcher that can cause trouble for hitters."

Cloquet is also capable of scoring runs in bunches. Last year's team averaged 8.5 runs per game for the first half of the season.

They're led by freshman Dana Jones, a revelation last year as an eighth-grader. Jones hit nearly .500 for most of last season and quickly established herself as one of the area's fastest players.

"She's the fastest kid around," Tondryk said. "She can slap the ball or drive it, she can use her speed and she's an impact player. Our goal is to just get on base and score runs and she's a big part of that. Last season in the playoffs she was playing at all-area level as an eighth-grader."

With Jones in the leadoff spot, senior Shelby Piel batting second and junior Kiana Bender hitting third, the Lumberjacks have a trio of blazing fast lefthanded batters to set the table for the power hitters who follow.

That would be senior Allie Wojtysiak, who Tondryk said should be able to drive the ball better than she did while injured last year. "(Sophomore) Brenna McClarey did a great job when Allie was out last year," Tondryk said. "We have players like Keagan Anderson playing third, Brenda, they all did a great job."

Added to that is freshman Brynn Martin, another lefthanded speedster who could also find a spot in the lineup. "That would give us four lefthanded batters, all fast," Tondryk said. "We're more athletic than before, faster, stronger, and I think we'll have better pitching. We have kids who can drive the ball, some out of the park. It will hopefully be a fun year."

The team's opening game is Tuesday, April 9, at Bemidji, and to prepare for it, the team has only practiced outside once as of this writing.

"We got into the parking lot for ground balls," Tondryk said. "We need time on the dirt and when we get that, it will help. The players don't spend a lot of time talking - they are just working hard to get better and do their work on the field."

"The main thing is that the one year of added experience helps," he added. "We don't have a lot to explain to the kids like rundowns, cut plays, all those things are fine. The more we get outside and get used to the dirt, the better we will be."