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Stillwater’s Hannah Heacox is one of her team’s two experienced returning pitchers. “If you’re strong on the rubber, that’s where it starts,” coach Bob Beedle said.

 

Nearly every team has question marks heading into its season. Stillwater softball has the luxury of starting the spring with full confidence on the pitching mound.

“Anyone would like to return their two pitchers back from a previous successful season,” head coach Bob Beedle said. “If you’re strong on the rubber, that’s where it starts.”

Successful is an understatement, as the Ponies overcame a slow start to the 2012 campaign to capture the Class 3A state tournament championship with a 6-2 win over Maple Grove. As teams stubbornly open the year practicing indoors, Stillwater returns two experienced and successful pitchers in seniors Hannah Heacox and Rachel Rhode.

Heacox has solid control and good speed in the low- to mid-60s. She struck out seven in the finals and 31 batters in three games as Stillwater stayed with her down the stretch. Rhode, who received a scholarship to play for Lake Land College in Illinois next year, complements her speed with an effective changeup. Both pitchers have been with the program since eighth grade, collecting invaluable experience that should pay dividends.

The two saw about the same amount of starts last season, but that doesn’t mean they will this year.

“There will be no equal rotation,” Beedle said. “Whoever performs the best will play.”

The Ponies have a strong nucleus returning this spring. Three seniors graduated, so there are a couple of holes to fill. But Stillwater is in a strong position to make another run.

Junior Natalie Gerber has the shortstop position after an all-conference season. She drove in five runs at state and was named to the all-tournament team to cap it all off. Gerber can produce at the plate and is also solid at one of the most important positions on the field.

“She competes hard. She’s a winner,” Beedle said.

Sophomore Carlie Hart returns as the starting catcher after an impressive freshman campaign in which she earned all-conference and all-section honors.

“If you’re strong up the middle, you’re a pretty strong team,” Beedle said.

Senior captain Haley Balzart anchors third base. Senior Allison Pasiuk can play infield, outfield and catch for the Ponies. Jordan Rastall will also serve as a utility player. Beedle called up sophomores Sidnee Ronsberg and Emily Ramberg last year during the middle of the season, and they return.

Stillwater entered the state tournament with the most losses (eight) out of the teams in the field. It was able to improve gradually throughout the season and put the pieces together at the right time.

“I think the kids just started to believe in themselves,” Beedle said. “They just kept getting better. They kept pushing their games and showing how hard of workers they really are.”

But this season won’t be easy for the defending state champs, especially in the loaded Suburban East Conference.

Defending conference champion Forest Lake has been dominant the past decade and should continue to hang near the top. East Ridge returns its entire roster, including pitchers. White Bear Lake and others will also be strong.

“We finished fourth in the conference last year so we have nothing to crow about there,” Beedle said. “We think that we play a double-round in our Suburban East Conference. It gives us a great deal of preparation for our section and postseason play. We have no easy games — and they’re all close.”

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