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Tori Ostman worked her push bunting during softball practice at the East Ridge High School in Woodbury, Min., Tuesday, March 26, 2013. ] (KYNDELL HARKNESS/STAR TRIBUNE) kyndell.harkness@startribune.com

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Talented and young describes this year’s East Ridge softball team. The Raptors put forth a valiant effort in conference play last year in only their fourth season as a program. They looked to take another stride this spring with a boatload of underclassmen.

The team also has what not too many varsity squads around the state can match: Three ninth-graders who will make a big impact.

“They are probably as talented as anybody I’ve ever coached,” coach Tom Nemo said. “And East Ridge gets the luxury of having them for three more years.”

One is Anna Roth, who hit .365 last year as an eighth-grader and will play third base. Another is Megan Tarara, who will hold down center field. In the first game of the last season, the eighth-grader went 3-for-4 with a home run. The third is Christina Pickett, previously of North St. Paul, who appears set to take over at shortstop.

Add sophomore Olivia Huffman to the mix. The catcher and outfielder hit .345 as a freshman last season. Kayla Bohlke will nail down second base, solidifying a strong middle defense corps for the Raptors.

“You have to be tough up the middle,” Nemo said. “Between our catcher, pitchers, middle infielders and center fielder, I think that’s going to be our strength.”

And pitching is everything when it comes to high school softball. The Raptors return two juniors — Michaela Anderson and Kelsey Ihns — who “were kind of thrown to the wolves last year,” Nemo said. “They’ve done nothing but mature. They’ve gotten a lot better and you can see a lot more confidence in them.”

Anderson and Ihns combined for an 11-9 record with 104 strikeouts. They’re hitting their spots better already this season. They’ve played a lot of summer ball as well and are both good athletes who can field their positions.

When Anderson and Ihns are not pitching this season, they may find themselves somewhere else in the lineup. Pitching schedules or possible rotations have not been determined.

It’s not easy for anyone to pitch in the Suburban East Conference, much less a couple of sophomores in their first varsity season. Forest Lake has been a powerhouse for years. Stillwater is the defending Class 3A state champion. Mounds View is looking like a team to reckon with. White Bear Lake, Cretin-Derham Hall and Roseville have gotten better. Hastings won the state title two years ago.

“On the flip side of that, you certainly gain by playing in a tough conference,” Nemo said. “It prepares you when you get to the sections. We are fortunate to really play in a tough conference. You can’t take a night off.”

East Ridge is off to a nice spring, despite the weather conditions. They won all three scrimmages March 23 against Coon Rapids, Elk River and Hermantown. Nemo has the luxury of keeping this talent around for a few years. On top of it all, they are already playing for each other — the way a team should.

“We have no attitudes. We have no egos,” Nemo said. “Chemistry-wise, it’s probably one of the best teams I’ve had. They pull for each other. They have each others’ back.”

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