By Paul Downer
By Paul Downer
One of the most talented Central softball teams in recent memory had a year to remember in 2012, though the coach, players and fans might have hoped for a longer postseason.
The Raiders used a bruising offense and tough pitching to post a 17-7 overall record, scoring 10 or more runs in over half of their games (13) and shutting out their opponents six times. As a team, they batted .435 and posted a 2.36 ERA. They also pounded out a 12-game winning streak during the season.
Of their seven losses, five came by one run, and one loss came by two runs. Those close losses were costly, however, as the Raiders finished third in the Minnesota River Conference behind LeSueur-Henderson (14-0) and Belle Plaine (11-3) with a 10-4 league mark.
In the playoffs, the Raiders defeated GFW and Belle Plaine to reach the double-elimination round, but fell to LeSueur-Henderson and Maple River in a pair of one-run losses.
"It’s hard to end the year. I know coaches say this a lot, and who knows what I’ll say next year, but this team was really, really talented. The numbers dictate that," said Raiders head coach Jon Lambrecht. "And the girls had team chemistry. There was no drama, no fallout, no issues off the field. Nobody got in trouble, everybody worked hard away from practice. Most of the girls played year-round ball to some extent. This all came together. And nobody got hurt. So we had a group of 9-10 players who played 24 games. We won 17 of them.
"You look at the MRC. We were third, but in the losses to BP and LeSueur, we lost by a total of four runs in those three losses. So this team was right there throughout the whole thing. We did a lot more right than we did wrong. And the offensive numbers? There’s not a team in the state that compares to us 1-9, no way. At least not at our level."
It was without a doubt a year of superlative numbers for many individual Raiders, none more so than sophomore Natalie Stockman. Central’s No. 3 hitter batted .657, belted seven home runs and 15 doubles, and knocked in 51 runs, which may have led the entire Twin Cities metro area. She also was the team’s leading pitcher, throwing 67.2 innings with an ERA of 2.17 and 83 strikeouts against 22 walks.
In addition, junior centerfielder Brooke Willemsen set a new school record with eight home runs, and batted .491 while driving in 41 runs. Senior shortstop Afton Wolter hit .563 with 12 doubles and 22 RBIs, and senior Megan Schmitz hit .438 with 22 RBIs. Schmitz also pitched 40 innings, compiling an ERA of 2.80 with 36 strikeouts and just five walks.
All four players were named to the all-conference squad, while freshman third baseman Kaylie Brazil, who batted .412 with five doubles and 18 RBIs was named all-conference honorable mention.
With numbers like that, Lambrecht was outspoken in his disappointment that none of his players, specifically Stockman, earned all-state honors. In fact, Stockman did not receive MRC Player of Year honors either. That honor instead went to LeSueur-Henderson senior Gretta Schultz, a catcher.
"I feel strongly that all-state recognition was deserved and it wasn’t received. I also felt strongly that Natalie Stockman deserved to be the MVP of the MRC, and she didn’t get that. I’m upset," said Lambrecht. "It’s ageism. If a high-producing player is not a senior, many times they are dismissed until they are seniors. I have a problem with that because numbers and stats and performance are not guaranteed at all. We don’t know if she’s going to get injured. We don’t know what could happen – any great number of things could happen where she never puts up numbers like that again. So when numbers are there and they dictate recognition, they need to be recognized."
Other seniors on Central’s roster this season included left field Brianna Latzke, who batted .353, Miranda Flannery, Dana Richter and Emily Schwichtenberg.
"We have a lot of returning talent, but the seniors will definitely be missed. All of them, what they did as far as the bench and as far as character and the people that they were, they’ll be missed. They’re great kids. Smart kids. Hardworking kids. A pleasure to be around. I consider myself very fortunate to be part of this program and be able to coach these kids. It’s like a family," said Lambrecht.
Next year, Lambrecht can look forward to returning Stockman, Willemsen and Brazil, along with other varsity regulars like Megan Miller, Tracy George, Kayla Leonhardt and Brooke Raether to fuel another run.
"If we can play with a purpose and with discipline, the sky is the limit," Lambrecht said. "We can do some special things. We got close this year. We’ll stick to the same plan of attack."