During the course of many teams’ seasons, there is bound to be peaks and valleys. The 2021 North Branch softball team is no different. What was different, however, is how the team utilized one of those valleys to in fact gain momentum to reach the peak of their season thus far - claiming the Section 7AAA championship and earning a trip to the state tournament.

One look at their season record, and that valley becomes very apparent. The Vikings lost the last five games of their regular season, dropping what was a stellar 11-4 record down to an average looking 11-9 season. On closer inspection, however, those final four losses in particular was a catalyst for their surging through the rest of the Section 7AAA field.

In a span of less than one week, the Vikings dropped four games against extremely strong competition in the form of two losses to Section 7AAAA #2 seed Blaine, one to eventual Section 8AAAA champion Elk River, and one to eventual Section 7AAAA champion Forest Lake. What’s more, in those four games, the Vikings only lost by one run in three of those contests and by two runs in the fourth.

“I would agree with that,” Viking head coach Kathy Crudo said when presented with the argument that the increased level of competition forced her team to play better entering sections. But at the same time, Crudo credits the team with striving to be better as the season went on, no matter who the opponent was.

“I would also just add that we were peaking throughout our season as it continued to go on,” she said. “Every practice was crucial towards that growth and then continue to keep the foot on the gas throughout and having, being forced to playing that way with our competition definitely didn’t hurt and kept that mindset for our girls.”

The improvement was noticeable from the very start of the section tournament as the Vikings steamrolled past both Duluth Denfeld and Cloquet by identical 10-0 scores. Next came a 5-1 win over rival Chisago Lakes, who had handed North Branch two of their other five regular season losses. This propelled the team into the championship game undefeated, where they wound up again facing neighbor Chisago Lakes, with the Wildcats needing two wins to advance to state and North Branch only needing one.

Section championship

As it turned out, North Branch quickly snuffed out any Wildcat state aspirations with a come-from-behind 5-4 win in the first championship game, which was played at Forest Lake.

The game began with it looking to most like this was going to be a long night. After North Branch grabbed an early 1-0 lead, the Wildcats would take a 4-1 lead after two innings. While it appeared the Wildcats had figured out their timing versus North Branch pitcher Hannah Bernier, the freshman bore down, started mixing in some change of pace pitches that kept the Wildcats off-balance the rest of the game. That, coupled with a pair of timely double plays by the Viking fielders resulted in no additional runs.

While Bernier came up clutch in her first taste of section championship play, junior Makenna Runk did the same at the plate. Batting right behind senior Sophia Smith, who has earned a justifiable reputation as a dangerous power hitter, Runk saw the Wildcats intentionally walk Smith three times to get to her, with two of those times Smith’s walk loaded the bases.

After the third intentional walk, which took place in the fifth inning, Runk, who is quickly gaining a reputation for key opposite field hits, did just that, smashing a laser over the first baseman’s head for a bases-clearing triple that tied the score at four. After junior Brooke Rothe was brought in as a pinch runner, she scored what would be the winning run on a Wildcat wild pitch.

Bernier quickly dispensed of the Wildcat batters in the final two innings, punctuating her performance with a game-ending strikeout that sent the Vikings players and crowd into a frenzy, and earning the school their second-ever state tournament berth, with the other one coming in 2018.

This year’s state tournament will again be held at North Mankato’s Caswell Park on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 15-16. The quarterfinals for Class AAA will be played at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, with the Vikings taking on a yet-to-be-determined opponent. Should they win that game, they will play in the state semifinals at approximately 5 p.m. the same day. The third place game is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Wednesday, and the championship is scheduled for noon.

One and done at state

As is sometimes the case, when a team reaches their peak, it is followed by suddenly going downhill. Unfortunately, such is the case with the Vikings as the team dropped their state quarterfinals game versus #1 seed Mankato West 10-0 in five innings on Tuesday, June 15, thus causing their season to come to an abrupt end.

Tournament jitters seemed to overcome the Vikings in Mankato, as a series of errors in the first inning allowed Mankato to jump out to a 3-0 lead. The Scarlets would add another seven runs in the third inning to extend their lead to 10-0.

And while the defense was struggling to find their groove in the field, the North Branch batters were having an equally tough time at the plate. The normally potent Viking hitters couldn’t catch up with Mankato West pitcher Abbi Stierlen, resulting in multiple infield pop-ups or slow grounders. 

The Vikings’ best offensive threats came after the Scarlets’ had already built up their 10-run lead. In both the fourth and fifth innings, North Branch would get a pair of singles, but Mankato West would quickly work their way out of the potential jam, leaving two runners left on base. In all, North Branch’s six hits could only advance a runner no further than second base. 

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