GRAND RAPIDS — Last season was supposed to be a building season for the Grand Rapids High School fastpitch softball team considering just how young the returning players were.
But that rebuilding process had to be put on hold for a season as the pandemic cancelled the high school spring sports season in Minnesota. So, with the Thunderhawks returning to the field after a year off, that rebuilding process will begin this season for the young Grand Rapids squad.
The Thunderhawks started their season on April 10, and they have played five games so far this season. They lost to Proctor 6-2, and then fell to Chisago Lakes 17-1. However, Grand Rapids rebounded to record victories over St. Francis (9-7) and Duluth Denfeld (18-7) before losing to Cloquet by a 3-2 score on Thursday.
Kelsey Johnston returns for her third season as head coach of the Thunderhawks. Having lost all of last season because of the pandemic, Grand Rapids enters the 2021 season with a very young team with no seniors.
“It is rebuilding year, honestly, but I have a lot of expectations for the girls as far as skill development,” Johnston said. “That is a lot of what we are focusing on and hopefully next year we will start putting those skills in and winning a considerable amount of games.”
The Thunderhawks return three players who accumulated varsity experience two years ago. Johnston said she has brought up four eighth graders and a couple of freshmen to supplement the team’s juniors and sophomores.
“It is interesting without any seniors and with such a young team,” the coach said. “Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year but we lost it so we are digging our heels in this year for that rebuilding and hopefully we put some wins on the board as well.”
Junior Hannah Kinnunen has handled the pitching chores so far for Grand Rapids while also helping the lineup out with her bat. Addie Linder, a freshman, is a first baseman and pitcher and also wields a big bat while sophomore Lindsey Tulla, a third baseman/pitcher, also hits for power. Another key player for Grand Rapids is sophomore center fielder Lindsey Racine.
In addition, there are a number of other players who are vying for playing time this season for the Thunderhawks.
When asked what she feels will be keys to a successful season for the Thunderhawks, Johnston said, “It is a lot of finding roles. There are a lot of girls who in the past haven’t expected to play because of their age but I have four eighth graders that are chomping at the bit to get some playing time. So, we need the girls just to know their roles.
“We have 22 girls and there are 22 girls that are able to step in and play. We don’t have a lot of set spots.”
Grand Rapids will again play in Section 7AAA this season and Johnston feels Chisago Lakes, Cloquet and North Branch are the early-season favorites.
“I would say we are about in the middle on a good day,” Johnston explained.
Assisting in the coaching department are JoLynn Linder, Eric Blair and Carli Haynes.
“It’s a blast to coach them. There is a lot of sass but it is put in a good way,” said Johnston. “They have really bonded because they want a season and because we are such a small group and everyone is playing.
“They work their butts off every day in practice, they pick each other up if someone fails and they cheer if someone succeeds,” Johnston explained. “Especially for being so young and not having any seniors or girls with a lot of experience, it is really cool to see how they have adapted.”
Following are results of games played so far:
PROCTOR — The Thunderhawks dropped their season opener to Proctor 6-2.
Hannah Kinnunen pitched the distance for Grand Rapids and did not yield an earned run in the loss. In her seven innings of work, she allowed just four hits while not issuing a walk and striking out one.
Lindsey Racine, Abbie Linder, Summer Seelye, Emma Moran and Kinnunen all had one hit for Grand Rapids with Racine, Linder and Moran all hitting doubles. Linder and Racine drove in the Thunderhawk runs.
CHISAGO LAKES — Not much went right for the Thunderhawks on April 16, as they lost on the road to Chisago Lakes 17-1.
Hannah Kinnunen pitched the first three innings and gave up 12 runs, eight of which were earned. She allowed eight hits while walking one. Lindsey Tulla pitched the final two innings and gave up six runs, none of which were earned. She yielded two hits while walking two.
Ashley Mandell was tough on the mound for Chisago Lakes as she hurled a two-hitter in giving up just the one earned run. She walked three and struck out six.
Greta Gillach had two hits, scored two runs and drove in three for Chisago Lakes. Chloe Zupko and Mandell each had two hits and two RBIs while Anya Nephew and Leah Zaruba also added two hits.
Addie Linder had both Grand Rapids hits with one being a double. She also stole two bases.
CHISAGO LAKES — Grand Rapids defeated St. Francis 9-7 in the Chisago Lakes Quad.
St. Francis led 5-3 after four innings but the Thunderhawks scored one run in the fifth and then scored five big runs in the seventh inning to lead 9-5. St. Francis scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the seventh inning but it wasn’t enough as the Thunderhawks took the win.
Hannah Kinnunen pitched the distance to pick up the win for Grand Rapids. She allowed seven runs – six of which were earned – while walking one and striking out eight.
Hannah Kiefer took the loss on the mound for St. Francis.
Adrienne Venditto, Addie Linder, Lindsey Tulla, Kkarley Sokoloski, Olivia Mustar and Kinnunen all had two hits for the Thunderhawks. Tulla had a pair of doubles while Sokoloski had one.
The Thunderhawks stole nine bases in the game with Lindsey Racine racking up six stolen bases by herself.
Madison Rothbauer had three hits and three RBIs for St. Francis while Kyla Abrahamson had three hits and two RBIs. Alexa Skogquist also had three hits.
DULUTH — The Thunderhawks ripped Duluth Denfeld 18-7 in action April 20, in Duluth.
Grand Rapids scored four runs in the first inning and five in the second to lead 9-0. After the Hunters scored twice in the fourth inning, the Thunderhawks added five more runs in the fifth inning to lead 14-2. Denfeld scored five runs in the bottom of the fifth to close to within 14-7, but Grand Rapids added one run in the sixth inning and three more in the seventh for the 18-7 win.
Hannah Kinnunen pitched the distance on the mound for Grand Rapids and yielded seven runs – none of which were earned. She gave up five hits while walking four and fanning nine.
Lindsey Tulla had three hits with a double and scored three runs for Grand Rapids while Kinnunen had three hits with a pair of doubles and an RBI. Addie Linder, Emma Moran – who had a double and a triple – and Tanner Eck all had two hits with Eck having a triple and three RBIs.
Grand Rapids stole 10 bases in the game with Lindsey Racine racking up four and Karley Sokoloski added three.
Hanna Hovland and Sam Snyder both had two hits for Duluth Denfeld.
CLOQUET — The Thunderhawks lost to Cloquet in a close game by a 3-2 score on Thursday.
Grand Rapids is 2-3 for the season.
Amanda Paul pitched a three-hitter and struck out 11 on the mound for Cloquet to get the win.
Dana Jones had two hits and an RBI for the Lumberjacks.