While the Carlton softball team was touted as the top-ranked Class A club in the latest small-school state polls, Brynne Mickle admitted regular-season accolades such as those mean nothing nowadays.
"The regular-season is fun and all, but it's pretty much a practice for the postseason," said Mickle, the Bulldogs' junior pitcher. "This is what it's all about."
And with their 11-0 blanking of Floodwood at Chub Lake to open the Section 7A playoffs Tuesday, May 21, Carlton wasted no time in proving they're still top dog.
The state's top-rated, 15-win Bulldogs are the section's two-time defending champs and with their artillery of athletes back on the diamond - many of whom played in both state tournament trips - are determined to make another appearance in North Mankato come June.
"We really want to get back to state again," said Taylor Nelson, Carlton's junior centerfielder. "That's our goal - to make it to state and do better."
"We know what we need to do," Mickle added. "We know we can get to our goal, but we're just taking it game by game. Hopefully, we'll go far."
That certainly could be the case, as the Bulldogs bring back an extended list of experience to the diamond, including Mickle, Nelson, Abby Mickle, Alaina Bennett, Bella Anderson, Ava Grondahl and Nicole Nilsen - all juniors. Alena Wallin is the lone senior, yet giving Carlton just another athlete having played on the state's highest high school stage at Caswell Park.
Not to mention many of them who also played in last November's state volleyball tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Thus, these Bulldogs rarely ever slow down - or give into their opponents.
"I think our competitiveness comes through in every sport," said Nelson, who committed to play NCAA Division I women's hockey at Bemidji State.
"They're a super-athletic bunch, but one thing I like to preach is never plateauing," added coach Melissa Clark, in her fourth year at Carlton. "Yes, there's pressure (to repeat), but it's a situation they love to be in."
On Tuesday, behind Mickle in the circle, twin sister Abby Mickle hit a three-run, inside-the-park home run and added a double, as the team's top hitter continued her torrid pace throughout the spring.
It's that team-wide approach at the plate that Clark knows will be pivotal in the Bulldogs making a third consecutive trip southbound.
Top-seeded Carlton faces the fourth seed, Ely, in the quarterfinals Thursday, May 23, in Grand Rapids at 4 p.m. Semifinals and finals are set for May 28 and 30 at Cloquet's Braun Park.
Fellow top-seeded Cherry and second seeds South Ridge and Mountain Iron-Buhl are also challengers, along with dark horses like Barnum and Nashwauk-Keewatin.
And the Bulldogs know they're going to get each foes' hardest shot.
"From here on out, we're going to raise up the intensity and be ready to play against everybody's best game when they face us," Clark said. "They're going to be giving it their all because at the end of this, only one team is going to be coming out of here."
Then again, Clark's bunch wouldn't want it any other way.
"We're ready," said Nelson. "I think we're pretty good under pressure."
"We definitely have a big target on our backs," added Brynne Mickle, "but I think that's a good thing because it just gives us more motivation."
Pitching paves Panthers' way; Wrens finish first-year back
South Ridge is certainly motivated to see the Bulldogs again, the same team they fell to in the Section 7A final a year ago.
That could be the case, as the second-seeded Panthers (14-5) eliminated Wrenshall 10-0 in the Tuesday, May 21, first round in Culver.
The win was the 11th in the last 13 games for South Ridge, who rode the arm of senior Malania Madill, striking out nine Wrens in the five-inning win.
Along with Madill, senior classmate Celia Olesiak can also throw, giving the Panthers a 1-2 punch unlike any other in 7A.
"Those two lead the way," said South Ridge assistant coach Mikayla Olesiak, Celia's older sister, who had recently filled in for head coach Roger Plachta, who was sidelined with pneumonia.
Plachta was coaching third base Tuesday and will be back at it Thursday, May 23, when the Panthers face Nashwauk-Keewatin in a noon quarterfinal at Grand Rapids.
Along with Madill and Olesiak, fellow seniors Natalie Lisic, Shayna Preston and Taylor Broman, among others, are helping aid in another South Ridge run.
"They're confident, playing one game at a time and focusing on what's in front of them," Mikayla Olesiak said. "They're the best one through 11 team I've seen in a long time. And, with our pitchers, we have as sturdy a chance as any of the rest."
Brooke Kent was a study force for the Wrens this spring, as the sophomore pitcher struck out 101 batters in a mere 10 games during Wrenshall's first season back to varsity.
"That girl's gotta cannon," said Wrenshall assistant coach John Peterson, filling in on an interim basis for head coach Anna George, who recently had a baby girl.
Kent, who stuck out eight more Tuesday, was the driving force in bringing back the Wrens' program, beginning the interest several years ago, leading to this spring's varsity return, in which they finished a respectable 4-6.
"A lot of people had us pegged for zero wins this year," Peterson said. "It was a great season. I didn't have a single girl sad or cry afterward. They're a group that is just happy to play and as a coach, that's all you can ask for."
Bombers boasting timely threat; Cards' Risacher closes career
Barnum is asking for opponents to take notice of them, as slowly but surely, the Bombers are over .500 and onto the quarterfinals.
That came following an 8-1 win over Cromwell-Wright on Tuesday, May 21, in Barnum, now putting the third-seeded Bombers (9-7) opposite of MIB on Thursday, May 23, at 4 p.m. in Grand Rapids.
Tuesday, freshman pitcher Mendota Castonguay went the distance, striking out seven, while senior Izzy Carlson, junior Anna Wickstrom, sophomore Jessica Stevens and freshman Lacie O'Leary all had multiple hits.
"I like the way we've been playing the last couple weeks," Barnum coach Dustin Collelo said. "This is the time of year when you hope to start peaking."
That they are, having made their way to this point having lost to just two Class A opponents all spring - the others being against bigger, Class AA and AAA foes in a loaded schedule.
"We feel our record doesn't really indicate where we're at," Collelo said. "I like where we're sitting."
Meanwhile, Cromwell-Wright finished the spring 3-12, capping a lengthy career for senior Liz Risacher.
Risacher, who was 2-for-4 and scored the Cardinals' lone run Tuesday, played varsity for six seasons and all nine positions for seventh-year coach Terry Sawdey.
"I've had some tough kids to replace, but I don't know if we've had a bigger pair of shoes to fill than Liz's," Sawdey said. "There was nothing she didn't do. All around, she's a great player - just a great kid. On, and off the field."