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Pitcher Emmy Erickson practiced with the New Life Academy softball team recently. Softball coach Emily Evans is at right. (JIM GEHRZ, Star Tribune)


New Life Academy softball players began a practice earlier this week without a ball in sight, their gloves used to simulate bases.

First-year coach Emily Evans instructed players how to take a good lead, including what to look for from pitchers and proper footwork when leaving a base.

Attention to detail and more advanced concepts are welcomed additions for players hoping to keep the Woodbury-based private school among the state’s top programs. The Eagles have won five Class 1A state tournament titles but were moved up to Class 2A this season.

A new coach and tougher postseason competition? Bring it on, players said.

“Starting out is hard when there’s a lot of change, but I have hope and confidence that later in the season we will look back and see how far we’ve come,” said junior Kayla Binsfeld, the returning shortstop. “I’m excited to see what happens and what this team is capable of.”

Change also will be found on the diamond. New Life Academy must replace big holes at pitcher, catcher and center field — the all-important spine of a softball team.

The center field job is uncertain. Sophomore Nadia Nelson is showing promise behind the plate while freshman Emmy Erickson is the top pitching prospect. The torch was passed to her by senior Valerie Hohol at the team banquet last summer. No really, Hohol passed her a small tiki torch.

“Emmy is doing a fantastic job; she is looking great,” junior third baseman Maya Binsfeld said.

Nelson served as a pinch-runner in the Class 1A state championship game last spring. Erickson was used as the designated player. Neither needs to look far for inspiration on how to make a successful transition.

Maya Binsfeld, a third baseman in summer softball, but made her varsity debut at the hot corner last spring and thrived. Twin sister Kayla endured a more radical shift, going from second base to shortstop. She also became an integral part of what former coach Mick Ramey called “probably the best defensive team I’ve had in 10 years.”

“That definitely gives us confidence,” Kayla said.

Ramey, who directed all five New Life state championship teams, stepped down in the fall, a move Maya called “a little bit of a shock; it was different. But it was nice to have something different.”

Evans, who played college softball at Wisconsin-River Falls, takes a more cerebral approach to the game. From ideas on hitting, throwing, running, game situations and even warmups to an emphasis on weightlifting, Evans is giving players a lot to digest.

“The past coaches took each team, they dumbed everything down, made us understand and by the end of the season people who weren’t softball players became softball players,” Kayla said. “Coming into this season, Emily’s expectation is that everyone is a softball player. The first week of practice was an adjustment for sure. A lot of the things are the same, but they’re taught at a collegiate level. It’s nice because I’m always looking for more.”

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