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Softball preview: Bulldog battery mates center Carlton

CLICK TO ENLARGE: Carlton's Taylor Nelson runs down a fly ball during outfield practice behind the Four Seasons Arena during softball practice Monday, April 1. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal1 / 3
Carlton sisters Brynne (left) and Abby Mickle get in some pitching work during softball practice Monday, April 1, behind the Four Seasons Arena. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal2 / 3
Carlton catcher Alaina Bennett works on fielding drills during softball practice. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal3 / 3

When Carlton softball catcher Alaina Bennett was asked of her connection with pitcher Brynne Mickle, she didn't take long to answer.

About as long as it takes the pair of Bulldog battery mates to get on the same page between pitches.

"Honestly, it's the perfect fit you would want between a pitcher and a catcher," said Bennett following practice Monday, April 1, at the Four Season's Complex in Carlton. "She can put the ball exactly where I want it."

Where the Bulldogs want to go however, is back to the state tournament, where they finished last June, claiming fifth place in Class A during their small school's second straight appearance in North Mankato, Minn.

"We all wanna go again," said Mickle, the team's right-handed hurler, also on the team's trip in 2017. "A three-peat would be amazing."

That could certainly be in the cards for Carlton, who brings back a laundry list of returnees this spring under fourth-year coach and Bulldog alumna Melissa Clark.

Along with Mickle and and Bennett — both still juniors — fellow classmates Taylor Nelson, Abby Mickle, Bella Anderson, Nicole Nilsen, Ava Grondahl and senior Alena Wallin provide a wealth of experience unlike many have in the area.

Not to mention their willingness to win.

On top of their pair of softball state trips, many of Clark's diamond-dusters are members on the school's volleyball team, which made it to that state tournament last November in St. Paul.

"This group of girls is so athletic that they thrive in a competitive environment. They bring their A-game," said Clark, a 2010 Carlton graduate. "They're a bunch of competitive kids. There's no reason they should be at their full potential yet."

Brynne Mickle, on the varsity — like most of them — for the past four seasons, said their team's cohesion is a key factor for their success in multiple sports.

"Our chemistry is amazing. We've been together forever," Mickle said. "Everything just clicks for us."

"We've been best friends since we were little," Bennett added.

Now, just like in volleyball, the Bulldogs would like to head south at the season's end, hoping to up their 17-4 mark from a year ago and place even better than their school-best finish last June.

"We're confident," Bennett said, "but not cocky."

"We just want to keep proving to people that we're not plateauing, and that we're still really good," Mickle said.

Other schools

Barnum boasts a young, yet not to be overlooked crew again this spring, as the Bombers bring back both pitchers and much of their infield from a crew that went 11-9 last season.

Seniors Mallory Agurkis, Izabell Carlson and Sydney Baier boast loads of experience, while freshman hurlers Mendota Castonguay and KayeLea Poirier provide plenty of effectiveness in the circle. Castonguay has been the team's starter since seventh grade.

"Anybody who's coached or played softball knows that it starts in the circle," said fifth-year coach Dustin Collelo, who brought his team to a field in Blackhoof Township on Monday, April 1, to practice.

Cromwell-Wright will have small practice sessions this spring, fielding only 12 girls for a team that went 3-12 in 2018, but is on the rise with their returnees.

Pitcher-catcher combo Elisabeth Kachinske and Jordan Jokinen give the Cardinals a productive punch, while shortstop Liz Risacher, now a senior, has been around for ages under seventh-year coach Terry Sawdey.

Seventh-grade pitcher Jill Anderson is also one to watch, the daughter of Jana Anderson (Ferguson), who chucked Barnum to state years ago.

"They're going to get a lot of playing time and every girl is going to improve their skills day-in and day-out," Sawdey said of his dozen players. "I definitely feel like we can make some progress this year."

Esko earned their way back to state last June, progressing their way down to North Mankato for a third consecutive season under third-year coach Jeff Emanuel, now unmatched 3-for-3 in state tournament trips in his tenure.

Emanuel gives that credit to his girls, who will look a little different this spring without now-collegiate athletes Emilee Wilson, Ashley Pollema, Davriana Horvath and Hannah Stark, but still seeks the same results.

"I think people say we're rebuilding," Emanuel said. "I say we're replacing."

Well put, as Kristy DeMuth, Zoie Johnson and Miranda Kelley can all throw, while veterans like Dea DeLeon, Jenna Zdebski, Sydney Hanson, Kaitlyn Bergerson and upstart catcher Jayden Karppinen will all contribute mightily for a team that went 23-6 and placed sixth in Class AA.

"I'm very confident," Emanuel said.

Moose Lake-Willow River was 14-8 a year ago, but graduated the nucleus of their previous power-hitting production.

Add in the fact that centerfielder Jamie Benzie has a torn anterior cruciate ligament and will likely miss the entire season, and it's tough going for the Rebels.

"That's a big loss for us," seventh-year coach Kelly Goeb said of Benzie.

Still, Goeb remains optimistic in her crew, returning the likes of productive pitchers Lilli Skelton and Sarah Christy, as well as slugger Natalie Mikrot and slick shortstop Dallis Kukuk.

"(We'll look) a little bit different, but hopefully be just as strong as we were in the past," Goeb said. "We have to replace that, but we have some young girls ready to take that spot."

South Ridge ran all the way to the 7A final before falling to two-time champ Carlton last May, and along with returning a number of their players, brings in a new — yet not new — coach.

Roger Plachta, who has coached the last 36 seasons in a dugout, including his last 19 at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, takes over for the Panthers after his time with the collegiate Yellowjackets.

"The AD called me and asked if I was interested. That was on a Friday and practiced started Monday," Plachta said with a laugh. "I really didn't have much to do and I didn't feel like I was done coaching yet."

Celia Olesiak and Malania Madill make their way back as pitchers for South Ridge, while teammates Shayna Preston, Alana Young and Natalie Lisic also return for a team that finished 14-7 a season ago.

Wrenshall will be fielding their first varsity team this spring in recent memory, as the Wrens played the last two years at the JV level, yet are now ready for the big leagues.

That's much in part to sophomore pitcher Brooke Kent, who helped petition to the school to bring the sport back two years ago and has done so successfully with her peers, coaches and supportive community members.

Wrenshall, who will play their home games at Cloquet's Braun Park, host their first varsity contest Tuesday, April 9, against Two Harbors.

Along with Kent, junior Lexy Perry and eighth-grader Janae Sjodin will be ones to watch for the varsity newcomers.

"They're excited, but nervous," third-season coach Anna George said. "These girls just make me so proud — I'm just proud to be part of all of it."