Photo by SportsEngine
We task our reporters with identifying several intriguing games throughout the state to assemble our Top Games of the Week. The matchups are presented in no particular order, and when there are additional games we want to highlight, we’ll include them with brief notes.
Stillwater and Forest Lake have played several high-stakes games over the past few years. Although the Ponies (16-1, 12-1) stand to clinch a Suburban East Conference championship with a victory at Forest Lake on Thursday, it might not be the most important game they will play against the Rangers (12-4, 12-3) this season.
Stillwater, ranked second in Class 4A coaches' poll released May 9, and No. 4-4A Forest Lake have met in the state tournament each of the past three seasons and could very well meet again at North Mankato's Caswell Park this spring.
Thursday's game is a replay of last spring's Class 4A state championship game, which Forest Lake won 8-5. Stillwater knocked the Rangers out of title contention in the 2019 state tournament with a 9-1 victory in the Class 4A semifinals and eliminated Forest Lake with an 8-4 victory in the 2018 quarterfinals.
The conference rivals are placed in different sections, with Stillwater in Section 4 and Forest Lake in Section 7. But getting to the state tournament will be anything but routine for either team this season. White Bear Lake is the only team to beat the Ponies in 2022, coming from behind to win 2-1 at home on April 27. Forest Lake may face No. 8-4A Blaine in its section playoffs.
The Ponies, led by pitcher Keira Murphy and slugger Taylor Gray, take a one-game lead in the Suburban East title race over the Bears (13-2, 13-2) into this week. The fifth-ranked Bears beat Forest Lake 7-2 last week to make a conference title unlikely for the Rangers.
Murphy has a 14-1 record in the circle and two home runs and 14 RBIs at the plate. Gray has a team-high four home runs and 18 RBIs while Cat Smetana has three home runs and 17 RBIs, and Gaby LaFavor has two home runs and 11 RBIs.
Eighth-grader Avery Muellner (6-2, 1.45 ERA) and sophomore Hannah Tong (5-2, 1.65 ERA) have split pitching duties. Tong (three home runs, 12 RBIs) and junior catcher Bethany Weiss (three home runs, 23 RBIs) power the offense.
Winona crushed Mankato West's Class 3A championship dreams last season with a 7-6 victory in the state tournament semifinals. The No. 1-3A Scarlets (14-2, 11-0) can turn the tables on the No. 3-3A Winhawks (16-1, 10-1) with a victory on Tuesday.
Mankato West can all but clinch a Big 9 Conference championship and be confident heading into the postseason, where another state tournament matchup with Winona is possible. The Scarlets compete in Section 1; Winona competes in Section 2.
Both teams have steamrolled through the regular season. Winona's only loss was to conference foe No. 6-3A Mankato East. Mankato West's losses have been against Class 4A opponents Rosemount (ranked No. 1) and Hopkins. The Scarlets, led by the senior pitching duo of Abbi Stierlen and Lauryn Douglas, have already beaten No. 2-3A Chisago Lakes.
Winona, too, has a two-armed pitching attack. Juniors Makayla Steffes (8-1, 97 strikeouts in 56 innings) and Ava Hamsund (6-0, 52 strikeouts in 43 innings) have surrendered just 22 runs and helped the Winhawks post six shutouts. With Grace Fricke (.490, three home runs, 22 RBIs) and Olivia Poulin (.388, two home runs, 19 RBIs) leading the offense, Winona has outscored opponents by 100 runs this season.
The postseason starts Tuesday for both Blaine and Centennial when the teams meet in a game that will decide the Northwest Suburban Conference champion.
Both teams are 11-1 in conference play headed into the final week of the regular season. Each team has one conference game remaining on the schedule.
Centennial, behind the pitching and hitting of Helene Krage, advanced out of Section 5 to reach the 2021 Class 4A state tournament. But Krage has missed the past few games with an injury, and that puts a big dent in the Cougars offense.
Riley O'Connell has played well behind Krage. She's 6-0 as a pitcher with a 0.55 ERA and is batting .455 with a home run and six RBIs. Bryn Ruhberg is batting .488 with 11 RBIs for the No. 6-4A Cougars, which placed third at last season's Class 4A state tournament.
And pitching and defense have been the trademark of Centennial's team this season. The Cougars have surrendered just 32 runs, with nine of them coming in a loss last week to No. 4-3A St. Anthony.
Offense has largely been responsible for the success of Blaine, ranked eighth in Class 4A. Kaitlyn Way, with five home runs and 21 RBIs, leads a lineup that has accounted for 139 runs, or more than nine per game.
Eden Prairie vs. Rosemount, 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 17. Two likely conference champions meet in this matchup of ranked Class 4A teams. No. 9-4A Eden Prairie (10-5, 8-2) is on track to win the Lake Conference. No. 1-4A Rosemount (14-1, 13-1) is the defending state champion and closing in on a South Suburban Conference title.
Maple Grove vs. White Bear Lake, 4:30 p.m., Thursday, May 19. Maple Grove (10-5, 10-2) has fallen to 10th in the Class 4A rankings after five losses in its last eight games. Getting results turned around against red-hot White Bear Lake (13-2, 13-2), ranked No. 5 in Class 4A, and slugging pitcher Chloe Barber will be a tall order.
Mounds Park Academy vs. Hill-Murray, 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 18. Mounds Park Academy has lost two of its last three games after a 12-0 start, but the No. 5-2A Panthers (13-2, 9-0) should give No. 10-3A Hill-Murray (11-5, 8-4) a stiff challenge.
The MN Softball Hub poll is for entertainment purposes only.