by ADAM GRUENEWALD
Coming off of their first Minnesota River Conference title since 1984, Central softball head coach Jon Lambrecht hopes his team can take the next step this year.
The Raiders finished 18-4, including 12-2 in conference last season, but lost in the section 2AA tournament to Maple River, who wound up making it to the state tournament losing to the eventual state champion New Ulm.
Entering his 11th year of coaching, Lambrecht has come close to state repeatedly, with six top two conference finishes.
“This game is tough,” he said. “When you get that far as often as I have as often as I have and come up short time and time and time again by one or two runs. What does it take? I thought last year was our year.”
The Raiders return seven seniors and five juniors though.
“Our varsity will be very experienced,” he said. “Not just high school ball either, they play almost year-round and one of the most dedicated groups I’ve ever seen. I don’t think it’s a stretch if we stay healthy we’re going to be a very difficult team to beat.”
Headlining the group is senior Natalie Stockman, the 2013 conference MVP, who returns with senior Kayla Leonhardt and juniors Megan Miller and Kaylie Brazil who all made the MRC All Conference team.
Stockman hit .602 last season with six homeruns and a state–leading 14 doubles. On the mound, she had 7-1 record and an ERA of 0.84 while pitching 50 innings.
“As far as individual athletes on a team sport are concerned it’s hard to have a bigger impact,” said Lambrecht. “I’d put her in the top four or five players in the state. It’s something very few coaches get an opportunity to coach or have on a team.”
Miller played every inning at catcher and led the team in successful sacrifice bunts and was successful on a couple of suicide squeeze bunt plays. Brazil, who plays shortstop, was the team’s leadoff hitter and led the team in runs scored and tied for the stolen base lead with 12.
Other returning regular starters include junior McKayla Lobitz and senior Anna Willems.
“We’re pretty blessed with talent,” said Lambrecht. “Not only are they good athletes on the field but they’re good off the field. Some of them are just standout leaders and I think that speaks volumes.”
The Raiders will be without Brooke Willemsen, who hit .397 and went 7-1 last year, as well as fellow regulars Tracy George and Brooke Raether, who all graduated.
Replacing those seniors will be a challenge, Lambrecht said although it’s one he and his coaching staff has planned on.
Senior Abby Forner figures to take over for George at first base, junior Megan Knickerbocker will likely play third for Raether while it will be a group effort to fill-in for Willemsen at the plate and in the field.
“She was a terror for our conference,” he said of Willemsen. “She’s going to be really tough to replace. That’s the nature of it. This is program where every year we try to get a little bit better.”
Unlike last year, Lambrecht said Stockman will pitch a vast majority of the innings for the Raiders with Brazil and Forner. Ninth-grader Hanna Kroells will be the main pitcher at the JV level.
“She’s (Stockman) strong enough to do it,” he said. “As a senior there’s very few that are going to be as strong as her. She’s a smart pitcher and knows where to put the ball and how to attack hitters. With that intelligence comes a physical skill set.”
While doubleheaders don’t figure to be as big a part of the season as much as last year, conditions have delayed the start of the season. The Raiders were originally scheduled to begin with a April 4 home contest against Glencoe-Silver Lake and have a game at Watertown on Tuesday, but those games were postponed. As of publication there was no word yet on the Raiders home game against Belle Plaine on Thursday.
“From my observations, I think the girls are ready,” he said. “What we’re waiting on is, like everybody else in the state, is weather. When we get out there, we’ll be ready.”
The Raiders home schedule includes contests against Tri-City United on April 17, Mayer Lutheran on April 22, Watertown on April 24, a doubleheader against Sibley East on April 29 and a game against Le Sueur-Henderson on May 6.
The Raiders will compete in two tournaments this year, against similar teams at St. James on April 12 and against higher level competition on April 26 in Monticello.
“I like the opportunity that playing up provides,” he said. “It’s a win-win for us. I expect us to win and our players expect to win, but even if we does lose to a team that’s in Class 3A it doesn’t kill us. If we win, that helps.”
Lambrecht said his team will certainly be in contention for another MRC Conference title with Belle Plaine, Le Sueur-Henderson and Tri-City United also in the mix.
“I’m going to have our girls concentrate on one play at a time,” he said. “I’m trying to get that in their heads in the gym, one swing at a time. I think if we can really focus, the end result will take care of itself. If we can focus on how we, as an individual, how we can be the best player we can possibly be then we’re going to have a team of nine of them and that team will be tough to knock off.”
Contact Adam Gruenewald at [email protected]