Softball joins Indy, Stanley Cup in epic class

John Gilbert

Superior catcher Emma Ray — another swing, another line drive. Photo by John Gilbert.

We all like to reflect our good sportsmanship, so we often repeat the theory that it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Sound words, even if we often don’t seem to follow them.

But amid all the outstanding sports events of the last week, we can pause to congratulate the area’;s girls softball teams for living the phrase and offering their 100-percent effort during sectional play, win or lose.  

There were enough major pro events to keep us all happy, such as Josef Newgarden passing Marcus Ericsson on a controversial last-lap restart to win the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. An otherwise clean race turned messy with three red-flag stoppages for crashes in the final 15 laps. The third of those happened with four laps remaining, but the officials allowed the field to circulate under a yellow-flag single-file slowdown for two laps before stopping the race. It would have been fair — and astute — to declare that there would be a 4-lap sprint when the green flag came back out, but they chose to say that the green flag and the white flag — for one remaining lap — would wave simultaneously, and Neugarden won for Speedway owner Roger Penske.  

Also, on Monday night, Dallas was at home trying to extend their West Conference Stanley Cup series again after two victories, but the Stars luck, and spirit, ran out and the Vegas Golden Knights thrashed Dallas 6-0 to win the series four games to two. Vegas will now take on well-rested Florida for the Stanley Cup.  

But none of those high-paid pros showed any more determination than Duluth-area high school baseball, track, tennis, Lacrosse, golf, as well as softball. But every year I am impressed at the high caliber of our area softball players and teams, and this might be the best season ever.  

We can’t project who will win the Section 7A, AA, AAA, or AAAA, but we know only one team can come out of each category and reach the various state tournaments. It also is certain that some of the games and results in the 7AA double-elimination tournament’s first two rounds at Braun Park in Cloquet have carved a lot of memories that the girls involved will remember all their lives.  

With our absurdly short spring seasons for weather, it makes it doubly impressive that so many teams emerge and play so well. But of all the excellent teams in Minnesota’s Section 7 brackets, the one team that would seem to have the best chance to win a state championship is – the Superior Spartans.

Going into Tuesday’s sectional semifinal, the Spartans were 22-0, undefeated, and with no indication that may end soon.  

My opinion is that Superior is the best area high school softball team I’ve ever seen, and that is because they ripple with skill at every slot in the batting order, and they happen to have the best pitcher in the area in Haley Zembo, and the best player in the area in catcher Emma Raye. The Division 1 Regional final was supposed to be Superior’s toughest test so far, but it was over in five innings when Raye socked a grand slam over the center-field fence to make it 11-0 and enforce the 10-run rule. Raye was 4-for-4 with two doubles as well, driving in seven runs. Zembo allowed one hit and struck out 9 in the five innings.  

I also anticipated the showdown of the year when Proctor played at Superior a week before Minnesota sectionals, because Proctor’s Mady Walsh would pitch against Zembo. However, the Rails held Walsh out of the circle because they had a big sectional seeding game against Rush City two days later. The strategy worked, because Walsh and Proctor beat Rush City, but the area game of the year wound up 11-0 with Zembo cruising in the circle and Raye, leading an overwhelming offense.

Everybody in the lineup can hit, and nobody I’ve ever seen play high school softball hits the ball as hard as Raye, who is hitting about .600 last I checked, and will be off to Northwestern next year, where she undoubtedly will help the Wildcats maintain their Big Ten domination. Zembo will head for Winona State, where UMD will get a chance to face her in NSIC play.  

Walsh will pitch at UMD, and there are other outstanding pitchers, including the tough tandem at Moose Lake/Willow River, with lanky left-hander Sarah Christy and right-hander Alexis Holland dominant in 7A. Christy, who will pitch at St. Catherine’s next year, tuned up for the sectional by striking out 12 in a 14-2 victory over Denfeld, lessened to six innings. She allowed two hits, and neither run was earned.   In the 7AA tournament, Hermantown and Hibbing played one of the more entertaining games, battling in the elimination round after earlier losses.

The two presumed powers in the large section were Twin Cities suburban  schools North Branch and Chicago Lakes. North Branch beat Hermantown 3-0, and Chisago Lakes saw Cloquet rally for a 3-3 tie that sent the game into extra innings.

In the ninth inning, a couple of walks and a couple of sacrifice bunts provided a difficult threat, and a pitch that was officially ruled a passed ball allowed the winning run to score for a 4-3 Cloquet loss. Cloquet fell behind quickly against Grand Rapids in an elimination round d game, and while the Lumberjacks got their game together late, they fell 12-4 to the Thunderhawks.  

But Hermantown and Hibbing both have talented and competitive teams and neither intended to wind up with an early loss and an elimination-round battle. But there they were.  Hibbing took a 2-0 lead on a perfect suicide squeeze bunt, and made it 2-0 before Hermantown tied it on a 2-run double by Baylee Edwards.  

In the top of the second, Hibbing had Aune Boben running on second when Emma Kivela singled off the shortstop’s glove. She recovered, and spotted Boben rounding third and racing for home. Boben was out on a perfect throw after a heavy collision at the plate. After a short discussion, however, the umpires ruled that the Hermantown third baseman, who stepped into foul territory when she realized there would be no play, had committed obstruction when Boben bumped her as she broke for home. So the Boben, who had been thrown out at home, was given home on the play — an unusual twist that put the Bluejackets ahead 3-2. They made it 4-2 on Maddie St. George’s hit, and it became 5-2 when Boben pulled a home run down the right-field line in the top of the fourth.  

But in the last of the fourth, the Hawks closed the gap on Bryden Giesen’s 2-out, 2-run double to make it 5-4, and Hope Kohanski singled home Mikayla Sweeney in the last of the sixth for a 5-5 tie. The Hawks won it in the seventh when the they punched through Vitek’s single for a walk-off run and a celebration that might have been as much relief as joy at staying alive.  

Boben, along with being Hibbing’s offensive catalyst, pitched the full game for the Bluejackets, striking out seven. Vitek, who had two of Hermantown’s 12 hits, also pitched the distance, striking out 10 Bluejackets while limiting them to only three earned runs.  

While Moose Lake/Willow River caught my eye in 7A, we can’t overlook Cherry, which beat Northwoods 10-0 and South Ridge 9-0, as Abby Mitchell fired back-to-back no-hitters to win both games. She struck out 18 against Northwoods, and 14 more against South Ridge.  

While the winners celebrate and head for the state tournament, every participant will leave this season with a dugout full of great memories from these games.