NEW ULM - Even after winning the state championship a year ago, the New Ulm softball team felt it had something to prove this year.
The Eagles graduated several key players from last year's team and approached this year as not the defending state champions, but as a team that wanted to create its own identity and win in a new way.
So far, so good for the 2013 squad as the Eagles (22-3) face Section 2AA champion Maple River (18-4) at 1 p.m. Thursday in the Class AA State Softball Quarterfinals at Caswell Park.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
New Ulm senior shortstop Brittany Hoffmann fields a ball during the Section 2AA Championship game against Pipestone in Marshall.
New Ulm defeated Pipestone in back-to-back games last Thursday to advance to its second straight state tournament. The Eagles have a more veteran approach now to the section and state tournaments with so much experience back from last year's team.
"Knowing that we have to come in [to the Section 3AA playoffs] and beat Pipestone twice, they're a great team and we have to play tremendous ball to get to the state tournament," coach Kristi Andersen Loose said. "We learned last year that a lot of the veteran girls are there for each other and will pick each other up. The fun and amazing thing about these girls is they are a team and they're there for each other."
The Eagles lost some big numbers from the seniors that graduated last year, but they've been able to stay on top of the section with new faces playing different roles.
"We lost some big players last year, and we knew that there were some really big shoes to fill, we lost our number one, two and three hitters in the line-up and some very key players on the field with 14 years of varsity experience combined," Andersen Loose said. "It is really balanced but I'd say we're heavy on the speed. I would say we're a little bit lighter on the power, but not by a lot. We have a lot of surprise pop power, every right-handed hitter has hit a home run and some of our lefties have hit a home run."
Last year's team had a combination of power and speed throughout the lineup. This year, the Eagles have relied on speed more often, something that seems to frustrate the opponents.
The Eagles didn't submit any statistics to the Minnesota State High School League but senior shortstop Brittany Hoffmann has been among the many offensive leaders. Senior Sydney Schuck has been the team's pitcher all season long and both give the Eagles a strong veteran presence.
"They have that know-how and it just stabilizes our team," Andersen Loose said. "The other players can just look up at them and feel like they have the support. That helps us all together."
The lineup was also a work in progress early in the season until late May in Mankato.
"I feel that in the Mankato East Tournament, that was our beginning with testing the waters of some of the girls," Andersen Loose said. "After the tournament, it felt like it was game after game after game, and there wasn't a lot of time to adjust line-ups and it fell into place before the section games. They've had to adjust and adapt all season."
New Ulm outscored opponents 230-47 while hitting .358 as a team and limiting opponents to hitting .160. New Ulm's offensive firepower included 15 home runs.
The Eagles of Maple River earned titles in 1992, 1996 and 2001, and are making their second consecutive and 14th overall appearance. They placed fourth in 2012 and did not face any other qualifiers during the regular season. Maple River scored 143 runs on 234 hits this year and has a .371 team batting average. Senior Makayla Rahn is the leading hitter, batting .473 on 35 hits and 20 RBI. She also pitches, went 16-3, struck out 143 in 117 innings and has a 1.44 ERA.
The Eagles open at 1 p.m. Thursday with a re-match of last year's state semifinal game in which New Ulm won 4-3. The teams battled at the East tournament this year and New Ulm lost that game by the same score.
If New Ulm ends up playing Rockford in the second round, regardless if they win or lose, that game will be played at 3:30 p.m. on Field 5 because Rockford has its graduation ceremony.