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Catcher Erika Rozell was named to the Star Tribune All-Metro first team last year as a sophomore.

The Lakeville North softball team saw a surge in victories and earned a share of the South Suburban Conference title last season. The team that won only eight games two years ago rattled off an eight-game winning streak last season on the way to a 12-1 conference record and 17-6 overall mark.

Fair warning to the rest of the conference: All of the Panthers’ starters are returning and veteran head coach Sean Hall is entering his second season with the program.

The bar has been set. The players have bought in.

“He knows the game very well,” said junior captain Jessica Meidl of Hall, who previously helped build top programs at St. Bernard’s and North St. Paul. “He has taught me so much about the game. He makes the game very enjoyable for me and my teammates.”

Last year Hall noted that he wanted to see improvement in the hitting department. The girls answered. Lakeville North averaged 6.1 runs in 20 regular-season games. The Panthers scored nine or more runs in eight of those games.

It’s a potent mixture of speed, high averages and run-producing power. Lakeville North has a dual threat at the top of the order. Meidl and Sara Nelson can both bunt, slap and hit.

“We have two of the best lefty triple-threat slappers in the game,” Hall said.

Meidl hit .421 last year in the leadoff spot while playing center field. She gets on base a lot and is always a threat to steal. This year she’s added some power to her repertoire. Nelson bats second.

At first base and designated player, Tera McKenney brings power in the cleanup spot. She hits for a high average and drives the ball into the gaps. Outfielder Katie Parker also brings speed and slugging to the lineup.

Then there’s catcher Erika Rozell, who was named to the Star Tribune All-Metro first team as a sophomore last season. Rozell recorded 34 RBI.

“She had a tremendous season,” said Hall, noting improvement in all areas of her game. “She’s back behind the plate, and she looks even better than she was last year. She has a rocket for an arm and has gotten a lot better at blocking balls.”

While the offense looks set, Meidl said this isn’t a one-dimensional team.

“Not every game we will hit well,” Meidl said. “I believe our defense will be the key to our success. We all communicate well with each other and we all play as a team.”

The Panthers also return Michaela Zins, a key part of that defense and “probably one of the best pitchers in the state,” Hall said.

Zins, who has verbally committed to North Dakota, complements her velocity with a knee-buckling changeup. She can also throw a curveball, rise ball and drop ball.

“She’s not afraid to throw a fastball inside, but then she has the changeup that she can drop in there,” Hall said. “When she’s on, she’s very difficult to hit. She’s done a great job of hitting her spots this year. She’s coming of age.”

The conference and section still will be a logjam, but the Panthers aren’t downplaying expectations for this group this season.

“If we don’t make it down to Mankato, we will be disappointed,” Hall said.

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