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Pitcher Anna Pipenhagen worked on her bunting during practice. (Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune)

 

Blocking out last season’s state championship is not easy for Elk River’s softball team right about now.

Unlike the snow covering their field of late, the Elks remain blanketed with expectations as they prepare to defend their Class 3A title.

“It’s tough because everybody at school talks about it,” sophomore shortstop Marie Deaton said. “I’ve heard, ‘You guys better do it this year again!’ ”

Five teams have won back-to-back softball titles in the largest class, none since Burnsville in 2004-05.

Continuity and chemistry appear to be in the Elks’ favor this spring. They lost only two starters to graduation and are anchored by a senior battery of pitcher Anna Pipenhagen and catcher Michaela Bruns. And sophomore center fielder Jayme Langbehn, whose two home-run saving catches in the title game made ESPN’s top 10 highlights, also returns.

In addition, Elk River is led by a coach who understands the challenge of repeating as champions. Stacey Sheetz, then Schoenrock, helped Stillwater win back-to-back state titles in 1995-96 as the starting shortstop. She was a Star Tribune first team All-Metro selection as a senior in 1996.

Sheetz, who also coached Elk River to the 2009 Class 3A championship, has instructed players to “have confidence but don’t concede to the pressure.” She noted opposing teams’ reactions to playing Elk River in scrimmages earlier this spring.

“I could tell teams were excited to do well against us and I told the girls, ‘This is a taste of what it’s going to be like,’ ” Sheetz said. “How fun is that, though, when you have a great, competitive atmosphere?”

Fusing a champion’s confidence with an underdog’s urgency will be paramount this season. As it said on last year’s team T-shirts, “If doing your best got you this far, why stop now?”

“We’re not taking this like, ‘Oh, we won state so we’re going to do it again,’ ” Langbehn said. “We know we still have to work our butts off even to get to state.”

A new section playoff alignment this season offers stiffer competition. The Elks moved from Section 8 to Section 7 and could face Northwest Suburban Conference rivals Andover and Anoka. Of chief concern is Forest Lake. The Rangers have reached the past six consecutive state tournaments and fell to Elk River in last year’s semifinals.

The victory against Forest Lake capped a doubleheader in which the Elks showed an ability to win in different ways. Clutch hitting in the final inning turned a 1-0 deficit to Orono into a 2-1 quarterfinal victory. Courtney Jensen’s infield hit drove in the winning run.

The long ball helped Elk River pound Forest Lake into submission. Langbehn and Bruns homered in a seven-run effort against Forest Lake’s ace pitcher.

Sheetz said her team remains a potent mix of speed and power. Pipenhagen also credited her team’s chemistry.

“We were such a family,” Pipenhagen said. “It was basically drama-free even though we’re girls.”

The only drama so far this season has come courtesy of hallway banter by well-meaning peers. The key, Pipenhagen said, is taking the right lessons from last year.

“How often do you hear about it happening twice?” she said. “We’ve got to make sure we have the mind-set that we can do it but also know that it doesn’t come easy.”

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