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It doesn’t matter what level you enjoy sports, the suspense, surprise, expectations, apprehension, ecstasy, and disappointment all can vary with the stature of the game, and its outcome. It’s why they play the games, and why we, as observers, can be totally consumed by them.
Just last weekend, we could watch incredible twists and turns on an assortment of venues, from the Indianapolis 500, to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and to Wheeler Field’s softball diamonds. There were others, but that’s three pretty good examples.
Let’s start out with the Class 7AAA softball tournament last Saturday, where the situation was pretty cut and dried with the final six teams in double elimination. Forest Lake, the defending champion, has another powerhouse and was the overwhelming favorite to win the title on Thursday of this week down in Lindstrom, and return to the state tournament. Up North, Denfeld seemed to be the only team with a real chance to challenge the Rangers, taking a 15-1 record into the double-elimination portion.
Since the Red Plan eliminated Central from the landscape, Central students were split to East and Denfeld, and what will be remembered as the last three Central softball standouts emerged as vital components on this year’s Denfeld team, which lost only a 1-0 game to Rogers all season. Pitcher Sarah Hendrickson, shortstop Melissa Jarvi, and third baseman Mikayla Haynes are all seniors now, and they played at Central as sophomores, when Denfeld students attended and played for Central while Denfeld was being renovated. Then they all moved to Denfeld as juniors when Central was closed.
This year, as seniors, they are all Denfeld Hunters. Hendrickson, who will play at Wisconsin-Superior next season, has been a standout since her eighth-grade season at Central, and she continued it as a ninth grader before the merger. Always cheerful and quick with a smile, Hendrickson was bold in accepting what she called a newly widened circle of friends while shifting to Denfeld. In five seasons, there are friendships formed throughout the league, but rivalries can remain, too.
“There’s still East,” Hendrickson said, with a smile, as Denfeld was about to take the field, where she was wearing knit mittens in 41-degree chill. They weren’t just mittens, either. One was red and white, with Central inscribed, and the other was maroon, with Denfeld written in gold. Hendrickson didn’t pitch the loss to Rogers, but she did throw when Central whipped East 11-4 during the season, part of her 10-0 pitching record.
East, meanwhile, came to the field after an inconsistent season, a good team, with a mostly juniors and sophomores, that was under .500 until playoffs started. They were capable, thanks in large part to junior pitcher Vanessa Kohl, junior catcher Marjaana Dailey, and junior second baseman Rachel Berg. The game started, and if Hendrickson had a little extra adrenaline going because of the magnitude of hte game, East’s hitters went up looking for fast stuff. In the top of the first, Berg ripped a double to left-center. Dailey came up next, and jumped on a high-speed rise ball, drilling it over the left-field fence.
The Greyhounds made it 3-0 in the second, and Kohl pitched an outstanding game. Now the adrenaline was on East’s side. The only serious threats Central could generate were when Hendrickson lined a double off the fence in left-center, but advanced no further. Outfielder McKenzie Klaas hammered a drive over the fence in left-center in the last of the sixth for Denfeld’s only run, but Kohl came back strong for a 1-2-3 seventh, and East celebrated a 3-1 upset.
East lost 5-0 to Anoka an hour later, but came back to beat St. Francis 6-4 to get the chance to head for Lindstrom and Thursday’s elimination round. Denfeld never did get its offense untracked, and lost 2-1 to Chisago Lakes Area, and the Hunters promising 15-1 season ended up still impressive at 15-3, but unfulfilled after their final day in Duluth’s spring chill. It’s why they play the game.
INDY 500 CLASSIC
Tony Kanaan is one of those skilled race drivers who never has had the luck to match his personality. Traditionally, for 12 years, he was the guy forcing a smile and feeling genuinely happy for a friend who has won the Indianapolis 500 while some cruel and unusual problem ended his day of strong contention.
Last Sunday, the wildest and most competitive Indy 500 ever was conducted. Any of a dozen drivers could have won the race, which had about twice as many passes for the lead as last year, when the record was set. When it came down to the final dozen laps, Ryan Hunter-Reay was leading, with Carlos Munoz, Marco Andretti, Kanaan, and a half-dozen others chasing like a swarm of angy bees. The one thing that was most evident was that with the new design of the cars, which wear wide-body shrouds to shield the rear tires from being easily contacted by tires from other cars, which leads to most mishaps, meant that drivers could easily draft and jump ahead of any car directly ahead. So nobody wanted to be the leader with one or two laps to go.
A bump into the wall caused a caution flag slowdown, and single-file order closed up tight with eight laps to go. Hunter-Reay led, with Kanaan, who started 12th, right behind him, followed by Andretti and Munoz -- a rookie driving for A.J. Foyt who had never driven an Indy Car before -- in fourth. When the green came out, sure enough, Kanaan went low on the main straight and passed Hunter-Reay for the lead. Simultaneously, Munoz went high, and passed Andretti and Hunter-Reay on the outside to claim second. The cars sped around the track, but with three laps to go, another car bumped the wall.
Sure enough, the pace car came out on the yellow flag, and the cars had to circulate slowly for the final two laps, taking the checkered flag under the no-pass yellow. That gave Kanaan an amazingly popular victory, with Munoz an astonishing second.
The “rest of the story” stories are wonderful. Nine years ago, Kanaan met a 15-year-old girl about to have delicate surgery for a brain tumor. He gave her his necklace with a charm on it for good luck. We didn’t know about that, nor about the fact that her surgery was successful, and she has grown to become a 24-year-old woman -- who sent the charm back to Kanaan just before the race, saying he needs the good luck now, more than she. Kanaan had the charm in the pocket of his driving suit during the race.
In addition, Kanaan drives for former driver Jimmy Vasser, who used to be partners with Alex Zanardi on Chip Ganassi’s Target Indy Car team. Zanardi’s career came to a tragic end when he was driving in another series, and his car spun out and was severed by another car. He lost both his legs, but survived the accident. He later entered a wheelchair Olympics and won two gold medals. Because Vasser is still his best friend, and he’s gotten to know Kanaan, Zanardi showed up at Indy and rubbed his gold medal on Kanaan’s car for good luck. It couldn’t have been better luck, because the team had run out of sponsorship backing, and Indy might well have been their last race. That was before victory brought in something like $15 million.
STANLEY CUP BOILS OVER
Then we switch channels to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where the two Western Division series reached their climactic points. Top-seeded Chicago won the first game, then Detroit came on strong to win three straight -- one in Chicago and two in Detroit. While the Blackhawks were up against the wall, they staved off elimination to close the gap to three games to two, then upended the Red Wings in Detroit 3-2 in Game 6 to even the series.
So after losing three straight, the Blackhawks got to return home for Game 7 Wednesday night, with the chance to win a third straight and reach the division final after all.
Meanwhile, their opponent would be the Los Angeles Kings, defending Cup champs, who got beyond the hostilities and warlike scene against San Jose to battle into a seventh game as well. The Kings, with Jonathan Quick in goal, snuck past the Sharks, with Antti Niemi in the nets, in a 2-1 classic in Game 7. The only game in the series that wasn’t a one-goal battle was LA’s 3-0 victory in Game 5. San Jose came back for a 2-1 victory in San Jose in Game 6 -- in fact all three San Jose victories in the series were by 2-1, the same score by which the Kings won the series.
Justin Williams scored both goals for the Kings in the last game, and Quick -- playing in his first Game 7 after the Kings never needed seven games to win the Cup last spring -- held on as the Sharks stormed the net through the third period. The Sharks outshot the Kings 26-18. But the Kings hadn’t lost at home in two months, and the conference final should be a classic.
Pittsburgh, long favored in the East, will also have their hands full against Boston, where the Bruins grit could be a tough hurdle for the high-skill Penguins. We’ll see. It’s why they play the games.