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Rebekah Smith throws during Orono softball practice Thursday April 3 (Jerry Holt, Star Tribune)
The sounds reverberating throughout the Orono gymnasium are unmistakable. It’s a softball practice, held indoors due to a stubborn winter. Bats are hitting balls, balls are hitting gloves, coaches are barking instructions.
But something is missing. The voices of the Orono players are strangely absent. Little talking or laughing, no cajoling, certainly no complaining.
This is clearly a group that takes its business seriously. And with seven seniors having spent the past two seasons getting within sight of a state championship, that ultimate prize is fueling their determination.
“This team is a tight-knit group who understand, first and foremost, what they want,” coach Mike Carter said. “They know there’s a time to work and a time to have fun, and they do both, but they’re trying not to waste a minute of their time.”
For Carter, a minute is an eternity in softball. Now in his third season at the helm, he’s guided the Spartans to consecutive state tournament appearances, seven seconds at a time.
It’s common coach-speak to advocate a one-game-at-a-time philosophy. Carter has broken that down even further, asking his team for their utmost attention in spurts of seven seconds.
“He refers to that as the longest play in softball,” said senior Rebekah Smith, one of three team captains. “That’s the longest you have to stay focused for. When he said it, it clicked in my brain. I thought ‘Wow, that’s really right.’ I never thought of it like that.”
With Smith, a shortstop with a quick bat, laser arm and even-keel demeanor as a believer, the rest of the Spartans follow suit.
“If you can keep your focus for seven seconds at a time for seven innings,” senior center fielder Madi Arends said, “you should be able to finish a game.”
Of course, there’s more to a good team than just diligence and zeal. Talent helps, too, and Orono has plenty of that.
It starts with tri-captains Smith, who hit .605 with 58 RBI in 2013, veteran pitcher Hannah Bergh, who can reach the mid-60s with her fastball when needed, and catcher Shelby Early, the Spartans’ cleanup hitter and vocal leader.
The outfielders, with Arends between Ellie Wachman in right and Erin Garry in left, are fast and sure with their gloves and can steal base hits from opponents.
Meghan Garry, Erin’s sister, is adept at first base and so is sophomore Emily Geelan at second base. The platoon of Kaitlin Schaible and Megan Geelan at third base rounds out a veteran lineup that lost just one regular, pitcher Samantha Hartmann — who split innings with Bergh last year — to graduation.
As a team in 2013, Orono scored 233 runs in 26 games, an average of nine per game, and scored in double figures 12 times.
If that’s not enough, there’s the memory of the state tournament, in which the Spartans had eventual Class 3A champion Elk River down 1-0 in the quarterfinals through six innings before giving up two runs in the bottom of the seventh to fall 2-1. Orono went on to finish sixth.
“We were close in that first game,” Carter said. “We could have gone a lot farther.”
In short Orono — talented, experienced, motivated and driven to succeed — looks like a sure bet to make its third consecutive state tournament appearance. But players recognize that, despite their myriad of strengths, they need to prove it on the field.
“There is pressure,” Meghan Garry said. “All the other teams look at us going to the state tournament. We feel we have to keep moving up and always playing our best.”
Which, Wachman said, keeps her team sharp.
“We do have a target on our backs, we’re aware of that, and we’re ready to react,” she said. “We want to beat those teams just as badly as they want to beat us.”
Those expectations are the main reason for the businesslike attitude in practice.
“We know a lot of girls on other teams are saying Orono has a great squad,” said Early. “Now we have to go out and rep ourselves like that. We’re all focused, all fighting for than one goal.”
Jim Paulsen • 612-673-7737