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Panthers expect to be contenders

Ashley Thelen is one of three seniors returning to lead the Park Rapids fastpitch softball team this season.1 / 2
Leading the Park Rapids fastpitch softball team this season are seniors (from left) Ashley Thelen, Caitlan Isaacson and Katelyn Hilmanowski.2 / 2

  Once the weather starts to cooperate, Marion Goeden expects the Park Rapids fastpitch softball team to produce another successful season.

     The Panthers return eight letterwinners from last year’s team that finished third in the Mid-State Conference standings with a 7-5 record and posted their sixth consecutive winning season by going 12-9.

     Returning to claim starting spots are seniors Katelyn Hilmanowski, Caitlan Isaacson and Ashley Thelen; juniors Nakkita Buckanaga, Morgan Dean, Shania Johnson and Lauren Naeve; and sophomore Jessie O’Hern. Junior Bailee Jerger also returns as a starter after missing last season.

     Isaacson played in all 21 games at second base and shortstop and batted .294 (10 for 34) with 14 runs, eight stolen bases and six RBI.

     Thelen started 17 games at third base and hit .305 (18 for 59) with 19 runs, eight RBI and four stolen bases.

     Hilmanowski hit .240 (12 for 50) with five runs and six RBI in 21 games as a designated hitter last season.

     Naeve returns at catcher after starting all 21 games at that position. Naeve received all-conference honorable mention honors after hitting .342 (25 for 73) with 22 runs, 13 RBI and five stolen bases.

     Johnson returns to lead the outfield in centerfield after playing in all 21 games last season. Johnson also earned all-conference honorable mention honors after batting .408 (20 for 49) with 10 runs and 13 RBI.

     Buckanaga played in all 21 games at shortstop and second base and hit .344 (21 for 61) with 11 runs, 12 RBI and seven stolen bases. Buckanaga also went 1-0 with a 2.90 ERA in 9 2/3 innings on the mound.

     Jerger returns as the starting pitcher after missing last season as a foreign exchange student. As a freshman, Jerger received Section 8AA and all-conference honorable mention honors after going 15-6 with a 3.94 ERA in 122 2/3 innings. Jerger allowed 129 hits and 89 walks with 90 strikeouts. Jerger also hit .448 (39 for 87) with 32 runs and 38 RBI (which tied the school record) in helping the Panthers reach the Section 8AA championship game. Jerger will handle the majority of the pitching duties this season.

     O’Hern was a courtesy runner in 12 games and scored six runs.

     Dean filled in at second base and the outfield in four games.

     That group will be looking to take over the leadership roles provided by last year’s senior crew of Olivia Vaadeland, Lexi Burlingame, Erika Jerger and Katie Just.

     Vaadeland received all-section and all-conference honors after going 11-9 with a 4.59 ERA and batting .387 (24 for 62) with 16 runs and 19 RBI in 21 games. Burlingame also earned all-section and all-conference honors after hitting .362 (25 for 69) with 23 runs and 20 RBI while playing 21 games at first base. Jerger was an all-conference outfielder who hit .385 (25 for 65) with 17 runs and 14 RBI in 21 games. Just also played in all 21 games as an outfielder and batted .255 (12 for 47) with 12 runs and six RBI.

     Looking to fill the other varsity spots will be sophomores Hope Johnson and Sarena Kinkel and freshmen Nicole Eischens and Carly Waggoner.

     Starting the season on junior varsity will be seniors Tetyana Tsveilkova (a foreign exchange student from the Ukraine) and Laura Eloranta (a foreign exchange student from Finland); sophomores Deserae Ceminski, Lindsey Girtz, Hannah Hensel, Vanessa Kangas, Abbey Kisner and Lauren Rossman; freshmen Caitlin Brumbaugh, Sydney Bynum, Kellsey Clark, Bethany Feldt, Lindsay Irmen, Madisen Wagner and Tonya Yliniemi; and eighth grader Brooke Jerger.

     “This never-ending winter has made it difficult to make decisions on filling out the squad,” said Goeden, who enters her 23rd season as the Panthers’ head coach. “Our seniors from last season played a huge role in our success. However, this group of returning letterwinners gained valuable experience that we hope will translate into great leadership this season.”

     Last season, the Panthers hit .334 as a team and used 49 stolen bases to score 146 runs. However, 60 fielding errors led to 66 unearned runs. Playing better defense and being aggressive at the plate and on the bases will once again be the key to the Panthers’ success.

     “Some of these players were in the section championship game two years ago. They got a taste of what it is like to play high-level fastpitch. Having three seniors with experience on the infield will be a plus. They have experience on how this process works and what I expect of my players and program,” said Goeden, who will be assisted by Ken Tretbar, Aarin Galzki and Lee Purrier. “We have some quick feet. I hope to use that to our advantage on the left side of the plate slapping and dragging. If we can master the left side of the plate, it will certainly generate runs for us. However, we will need to continue to work on being aggressive on the bases. We tend to be a bit too conservative. I like the looks of our battery. I see Lauren and Bailee having a very good year. They work so well together and they have that competitive drive that coaches love to see.”

     Last season, the Panthers received the No. 5 seed for the Section 8AA playoffs and were eliminated by No. 4 Hawley in the first round. Hawley went on to win the section title to dethrone 2011 champion Fergus Falls. While those two teams are the top contenders entering the season, Goeden sees her team being a threat in the playoffs.

     “I expect our players to give their best effort every single day. I expect that if we take care of the little things and follow our process goals, we should have a season we will look back on and be proud of. Keys to a successful season will be to trust our plan and evaluate often as to whether we are sticking with that plan. We will need to make sure we put our program and our team’s best interest first and foremost,” said Goeden. “We are ready to see what we’ve got. We have some strong teams in our section. I hope to find them looking over their shoulder wondering what we will bring to the field. I hope we are the team they are talking about come playoff time.”