Rangers are top seed in state tournament

The Forest Lake softball team beat Anoka, the last surviving challenger for Section 7AAAA supremacy, 6-2 at St. Francis May 31, clinching a second straight title and trip to the Class AAAA state tournament.

The Tornadoes, seeded second behind the Rangers in the section bracket, had been threatened with elimination early after losing their semifinal game to Blaine on May 25. They afterward survived three elimination contests to make the finals but had to beat the Rangers twice to steal the title. In the end, even one victory over the Rangers proved a task too tall.

“Anoka’s a great team; they’re ranked really high,” head coach Sean Hall said (Anoka finished the season No. 8 in the voted rankings, and No. 3 in the QRF rankings). “They have the best hitting lineup we’ve seen, but we executed our game plan and came up with some clutch hits.”

Anoka struck for two early runs, but once Ranger senior pitcher Claire Bakkestuen settled in, the Tornadoes would hardly threaten to increase their score.

“I just had to stay mentally tough and trust my defense,” Bakkestuen said.

In the bottom of the third inning, the Rangers got on the board after sophomore Logan Anderson and Bakkestuen reached on Anoka errors. With two outs and sophomore Kat Yaeger running in Bakkestuen’s place, junior Autumn Reid walloped a base hit that scored Anderson. A strong throw to the plate put Yaeger out to preserve the Anoka lead, but the Rangers were far from finished.

Bakkestuen stifled the Tornadoes in the fourth and fifth innings, then in the bottom of the fifth, the Rangers loaded the bases with one out on singles by Anderson, senior Lindsey Johnson and Reid. Johnson was striving for her sixth straight section title and state tournament appearance as a starter for the volleyball, basketball and softball squads.

Junior Abby Drury hit a sacrifice fly to bring in the tying run, and junior Katie Gemuenden followed with a two RBI single to put the Rangers up 4-2.

Anoka had no answer for the Rangers’ big inning: Bakkestuen induced three straight groundouts in the sixth, throwing only four pitches altogether.

With the bases loaded in the bottom half, Reid hit a liner that skipped off the second baseman’s glove for two insurance runs. The Tornadoes put two runners in scoring position with two out in the top of the seventh, but a fly ball to right field ended their season and sent the Rangers to state.

After winning a section title on the same field in 2018, the bench-clearing celebration had occurred in the pitcher’s circle. This year, the Rangers mixed things up by partying near first base instead.

The Rangers came from behind in each of their last two games en route to the section title, having also overturned a 3-2 deficit against Blaine in the winner’s bracket final five days before.

“We overcame adversity in both games,” Hall said. “We kept fighting; the girls believed in themselves.”

The No. 1 seed

With the regular season and section tournament combined, the Rangers have put together a record of 22 wins and two losses. For the past few weeks, they have held the No. 1 spot in the state rankings.

“We also have to make sure we’re our No. 1 enemy,” Bakkestuen said. “We have to make sure we do our best every game and not focus on the rankings as much.”

The Rangers’ overall résumé earned them the No. 1 seed in the Class AAAA state tournament, which will be held at Caswell Park in North Mankato Thursday and Friday.

The Rangers will begin their run toward a state title against unseeded St. Michael-Albertville (19-5) Thursday at 9 a.m. Win or lose, they will play again at 3 p.m., against either No. 4 Stillwater (18-9) or No. 5 Farmington (15-9) in what would be either a championship semifinal or a consolation semifinal. Provided they won at least once on Thursday, they would get a final game on Friday, either the consolation final (9 a.m.), the third-place game (11 a.m.) or the championship final (1 p.m.).

The other half of the bracket is filled out by No. 2 Maple Grove (22-2), No. 3 East Ridge (22-2; co-Suburban East champs with the Rangers) and unseeded teams Edina (16-7) and Eden Prairie (19-6).

Park (17-5), the team that handed the Rangers both of their losses this season, crashed out of its section tournament and is one of the standout absences from the field, along with Lakeville North (17-4) and Chanhassen (19-4).

At the beginning of the year, Hall said the Rangers had three goals: to become conference, section and state champions.

Jobs No. 1 and 2 are complete. So what must the team do to accomplish the biggest goal of all?

“They just have to play without fear,” Hall said. “They have to go out there and attack the moment.”

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