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Benilde-St. Margaret’s sophomore Maddie Houlihan will be one to watch this year. She made the Star Tribune’s All-Metro first team last year as a freshman.

1 Finally, more offense?

It might have taken a few years, but statistics argue that adding 3 feet to pitching distances is beginning to create a more balanced game in Minnesota. Teams in the Class 3A tournament’s seven winner’s-bracket games scored 105 runs in 2011 and 2012 combined, compared with 54 runs combined in 2009 and 2010, when the pitching distance was 40 feet. Perfect games, no-hitters and shutouts are on the decline since the change. Pitching still dominates the sport, but batting averages, home runs and RBI are up. Shakopee junior Abbie Annen hit .558 last season. Maple Grove’s Abby Bunnell hit .440 and scored 28 runs. Forest Lake’s Dana Mogren hit .409 with 31 RBI, 26 runs and 13 doubles.

 

2 Strong eastern presence

Stillwater’s 11-7 finish in the middle of the Suburban East Conference standings didn’t matter. The Ponies believed the competition was better than in most of the state and proved it with a Class 3A championship. Forest Lake, Mounds View, White Bear Lake and East Ridge beat up on each other, but two of the section’s teams eventually landed spots in the state tournament. A year earlier, conference members Hastings and Forest Lake played for the state title. This spring, Stillwater and Forest Lake are Section 4 and 7 favorites, respectively, and Hastings, in Section 1, could make it three conference teams in the tournament’s eight spots.

3 New Life every year

New Life Academy’s fourth-place finish in the Class 1A tournament was a down year for the Woodbury private school. Without a senior in its lineup and new players at every position, the Eagles still added to a string of success that started with a 2007 runner-up finish followed by four consecutive state titles. Expect another high finish in 2013. Sophomore pitcher/hitter Valerie Hohol is back after winning 15 games in the circle and hitting .446 last season. Hohol is one of two sophomore captains (the other is Malorie Giere), but New Life Academy now has four seniors to help bolster an otherwise young but experienced team.

JASON GONZALEZ

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