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Fastpitch softball team returns talented lineup seeking winning record, deep run in tournament

Leading the Park Rapids fastpitch softball team this season are seniors (from left) Bailee Jerger, Lauren Naeve, Charity Ridlon, Shania Johnson, Morgan Dean and Christina Smith.

     Marion Goeden is looking for the Park Rapids fastpitch softball team to continue one streak and end another.

     A year ago, the Panthers compiled a 12-8 overall record to mark the seventh straight season with a record above .500 and at least 12 victories. Goeden is counting on the Panthers to continue that trend this spring.

     Unfortunately, the Panthers saw the season end by being eliminated in the first round of the Section 8AA playoffs for the second consecutive season. Goeden wants her team to end that streak this spring.

     Park Rapids finished second in the Mid-State Conference with an 8-4 record. Pequot Lakes took first with a 9-1 record. The Panthers received the No. 3 seed in the south for the section playoffs, but were eliminated with a 10-5 loss to No. 6 Perham in the opening round.

     As a team, the Panthers hit .332 and averaged almost eight runs a game while allowing six runs a game with a 3.56 team ERA.

     The Panthers return a veteran lineup with the talent to contend for the Mid-State Conference title, produce another winning season and advance deep into the playoffs.

     “I see this group competing with the best teams in our conference and section. We are looking to bring out our ‘game day’ focus whenever we step on the field,” said Goeden, who will be assisted by Aarin Galzki and Ken Tretbar. “This group will have to see the big picture and put what’s best for the team first. They will have to pull together and play for each other. They will have to play with focus and buy into the plan. We will need to improve in all areas of the game, but especially in the tactical areas. I expect this team will set high goals in the conference and section. We look to be the team other programs don’t want to play because of the toughness in our line-up.”

     Leading the Panthers this season are eight players who started games last season: seniors Morgan Dean, Bailee Jerger, Lauren Naeve and Shania Johnson, and juniors Nikki Eischens, Hope Johnson, Sarena Kinkel and Jessie O’Hern. Jerger and Shania Johnson earned Section 8AA honors and joined Naeve on the Mid-State Conference team.

     Jerger and Dean give the Panthers two quality pitchers. Jerger led the Panthers with a 10-8 record and 3.89 ERA last season and went 15-6 with a 3.94 ERA as a freshman. In 19 appearances last season, Jerger allowed 143 hits and 50 walks while recording 72 strikeouts. Jerger pitched 100 2/3 innings and allowed 97 runs, 56 of which were earned. Dean made six pitching appearance and went 2-0 with a 2.24 ERA. Dean allowed 25 runs on 27 hits and 24 walks while striking out 29 in 25 innings of work. Only eight of the 25 runs were earned.

     Jerger also led the Panthers’ offense by batting .424 (28 for 66) with 16 runs, 11 doubles, one home run and 17 RBI in 20 games while Dean batted .248 (8 for 23) with two runs, three doubles and five RBI in 11 games.

     Shania Johnson returns to center field after hitting .406 (26 for 64) with 19 runs, five doubles, one homer and 18 RBI in 20 starts last season.

     Eischens hit .357 (15 for 42) with 16 runs, there RBI and nine stolen bases in 17 games and will return to the outfield.

     Naeve returns for her fourth season as the starting catcher after hitting .339 (20 for 59) with 17 runs, three doubles, one triple, 11 RBI and five stolen bases in 20 games a year ago.

     Hope Johnson took over the starting spot at shortstop late in the season and hit .306 (11 for 36) with nine runs, four doubles and 11 RBI in 16 games.

     O’Hern played in 16 games in the outfield and infield and hit .296 (8 for 27) with 10 runs, one triple, five RBI and eight stolen bases.

     Kinkel started 18 games in the outfield and batted .231 (9 for 39) with nine runs, one double, three RBI and four stolen bases.

     “If experience is any indicator, my battery should be a strength. Having Bailee back for her third season and Lauren back for her fourth will be an asset. Morgan showed her ability last season to come on the mound as a relief pitcher. In addition we have three outfielders back and two infielders back, which will certainly help,” said Goeden. “Despite having eight returning letterwinners, we may look very different. We are shuffling things around to make sure we have the toughest line-up we can field. We have the top of our batting line-up returning and look to improve the averages of the bottom half. We have our power hitters and our really quick feet. If we are able to capitalize on the strengths of each, I see us improving on last season’s record.”

     Looking to fill the spots vacated by the graduation of all-conference honorable mention second baseman Caitlan Isaacson (.244 average, 12 runs, four RBI) and third baseman Ashely Thelen (.216 average, 13 runs, eight RBI) and first baseman Katelyn Hilmanowski (.300 average, five runs, seven RBI) are seniors Charity Ridlon (infielder, outfielder) and Christina Smith (infielder), freshmen Brooke Jerger (pitcher, infielder) and Macky Warne (pitcher, infielder, outfielder), and eighth grader Tara Johanning (catcher, infielder).

     Starting the season on the junior varsity Orange team are juniors Lindsey Girtz, Hannah Hensel and Vanessa Kangas; sophomores Caitlin Brumbaugh, Sydney Bynum, Kellsey Clark, Maya Johnson, Ava Mart, Carly Waggoner and Tonya Yliniemi; and freshman Julia Smith. The Black team will feature freshmen Isabel Bagstad, Lizzie Bannerman, Kayla Branstrom, Taylor Harvey, Makayla Hensel, Danielle Pfiefer, Chelsea Swenson and Trinah Szafranski.

     “We’ve got a hard-working and focused team,” said Goeden. “We have seniors who have great passion for this game and are looking to make their final season one of their best. We talk about leaving a legacy. I think this group has the ability to do just that.”