Kraken, UMD women provide inspiration to all

John Gilbert

Lauren Dixon gained more than just revenge when she beat Augustana 4-0 and 9-0 to lead UMD to last weekend's NSIC tournament championship. Photo by John Gilbert.

We can’t be sure that the Seattle Kraken will take out the hated Dallas Stars in the current second-round Stanley Cup Playoff series, but if they do, we can only hope the Minnesota Wild and their avid boosters are paying close attention.

The only distraction I had was figuring out how to hook up to the streaming broadcast of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference softball tournament from Rochester, where the UMD Bulldogs — still smarting from a regular season-ending doubleheader loss to Augustana by the embarrassing scores of 17-4 and 16-11 — sailed undefeated to a rematch with the Vikings. And Lauren Dixon, UMD’s ace left-handed junior who suffered the first-game loss to Augustana in hurricane-like conditions on the makeshift field at Malosky Stadium, beat Auggie 4-0 on a one-hitter.

That meant Augustana had to win its way back to a double-elimination rematch in the game I watched on the very well-done streaming broadcast on UMD’s website. It had to be one of the most satisfying games in UMD’s rich softball history, as Dixon fired a 4-hitter to beat Augustana in a game that turned into a 9-0 UMD romp for the NSIC’s automatic berth into the NCAA Division II Central Regional tournament. The Bulldogs, who won their fifth league playoff title but first in 21 years, will be the No. 7 seed and take on No. 2 Missouri Southern in the Joplin, Mo., half of the Central Regional.

Ah, underdogs again. Perfect! That’s the same status as the Seattle Kraken in the Stanley Cup, where, after stunning the top-seeded and defending Cup champ Colorado Avalanche, are operating with remarkable poise against the Dallas Stars.

Seattle stole the first game of the series in Dallas, and when Dallas won Game 2 to tie the series as it shifted to Seattle, the odds were that Dallas — which physically pounded the Wild in beating our guys in six games in the first round — were going to jump all over the inexperienced and randomly gathered Kraken. But after a scoreless first period Sunday night late, during which the Kraken stood up to the Stars physical cheap-shots, the Kraken fired in five goals and went on to win 7-2.

Consider the names: Jordan Eberle, Alexander Wennberg, Carson Soucy, Matty Bender, Eeli Tolvanen, Yanni Gourde and Justin Schultz. None of them household names, except for Soucy, because he played for UMD’s rise to championship caliber and then led the Wild in plus-minus before being let go to Seattle’s expansion draft. Those seven scored one goal each for the Kraken in their 7-2 rout, which boosted the Kraken’s scoring-by-committee style to 16 players who had gotten a goal in this, the first Seattle venture into the Cup tournament.

With odds-on favorite Boston being eliminated by Florida in the first round, all the experts are saying the tournament has no favorite now, that any of the remaining eight can win the Cup. But when I watched the Kraken attack favored Colorado with four lines of balanced and equal two-way play, I picked them to win the series — and win the Stanley Cup. It would be the most astonishing upset in Cup history, even bigger than when the Vegas Golden Knights pulled it off, because the Kraken didn’t build for instant gratification but for enduring substance. And Dave Hakstol is the perfect coach, having been allowed to install and carry out an incredibly disciplined style. They have outplayed the Stars, and have even outhit them with mostly legal but jolting checks.

That series has become my focal point for watching this spring’s Cup games, and is my fall-back entertainment while trying to coordinate live college and high school baseball and softball games with Duluth’s weirdest spring weather ever, and also knowing I could rely on some television broadcasts of the new-look Twins.

Several times I tried to find top games in the area, including a Friday afternoon drive to Moose Lake, when surprisingly strong first-year Rock Ridge (Eveleth and Virginia combined) was traveling to face a Moose Lake/Willow River outfit that was compiling record run totals while beating everybody regardless of class. It’s a long way to Moose Lake, but I got there just in time and asked where the high school was. A UPS driver directed me to take the first right off the roundabout at the south end of town and you’ll go right to it. Beautiful school, nice athletic fields, no teams of any type playing any games there.

I gave up, reluctantly, and drove home before I learned that the game was played, but at Willow River. It was, as I anticipated, a great one, with Moose Lake/Willow River taking a 4-0 lead before Rock Ridge responded with seven unanswered runs and a 7-4 victory. And I missed it!

At the UMD softball venture against Augustana in the tournament championship game, the major question was whether the awesome hitting statistics Augustana had accumulated throughout the season to snatch the regular-season title from the Bulldogs could be stymied for the second time in 24 hours by Dixon. But before we could watch Dixon head for the circle, the Bulldogs struck for three runs with a two-out rally in the top of the first. Catcher Sidney Zavoral, a tall, powerful hitter, drilled an RBI double to the fence, and Kat Burkhart stepped up and blasted a home run to left for a 3-0 start.

Two more ion the second, when Nicole Schmitt launched another two-run homer and it was 5-0. In the third, Zavoral socked another double to center field, although UMD didn’t score again until the fourth, when Schmitt led off with a double, and Kiana Bender doubled to left-center to make it 6-0. In the sixth, Zavoral singled leading off but UMD didn’t add on to the lead. Zavoral, however, singled in the seventh to go 4-for-4 and load the bases, and iurkhart’s ground single drove in two more for an 8-0 lead, and Julia Gronholz singled in the final run for 9-0.

The outburst gave UMD 13 hits while Dixon harnessed the Vikings bats on four hits. Dixon goes into regional play with a 20-4 record, having pitched every inning of the NSIC — 2-0 over Minot State, 4-1 over Winona State, 4-0 over Augustana and 9-0, meaning she gave up one run in the four games, with three shutouts. And while the Vikings might have been ambushed by UMD’s onslaught, those of us who have watched the Bulldogs all season are well aware of the potential, where Schmitt leads the team with a .385 batting average, Zavoral rises to .379, Bender is at .356, and Burkhart .351, and so on…

The Central Regional is split into two groups. At 40-11, UMD faces Missouri Southern (40-13), while defending national champion Rogers State meets Southern Arkansas in the other opening game. In the other half of the regional, No. 1 seed Central Oklahoma takes on Southeastern Oklahoma, and Harding meets Oklahoma Baptist. The regional winner will advance to Super Regional play next week.

The renewal of the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame was a warm and fuzzy evening last Thursday, with Pat Francisco stressing the community feel of the event when he said, “When you vote for me, you’re voting for you.” Olympian Kara Goucher stressed how the biggest victory in her resume was winning the half-marathon at Grandma’s Marathon because it was “back home.” Scott Keenan talked about running his first track event in combat boots at basic training in Texas and how it led him on a trail that ultimately led to him organizing Grandma’s Marathon. Norm DeBriyn, who grew up playing baseball in Ashland, and has retired after being head coach at the University of Arkansas for 33 years, said he was humbled to be inducted amid such a class of luminaries. And Karen Stromme said she’s retiring after 40 years of service at UMD, with 12 NSIC titles in her 21 years as women’s basketball coach.

No upsets there, because there were no underdogs among the inductees.