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Softball: 1 game away: Warriors beat Hopkins to advance to state title game

Brainerd faced Hopkins in the Class 4A State Semifinals.

A softball player hits the ball.
Brainerd's Meghan Smith watches as the pitch comes in Thursday, June 9, during the Class 4A State Semifinal softball game against Hopkins at Caswell Park in North Mankato. Bill Johnson / Picture Day Pro!
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NORTH MANKATO — Team chemistry is the No. 1 asset for the Brainerd Warriors, but there’s one unique, special bond between two seniors.

When Kasia Kroll gets on base, Meghan Smith makes sure she gets home safely.

The two paired up in Brainerd’s 4-3 quarterfinal victory over East Ridge. Then did it again in the Class 4A State Semifinal game to help Brainerd to a 5-2 victory over unseeded Hopkins Thursday, June 9, to send Brainerd to the state title game.

“Obviously, Kasia is pretty speedy so I just feel like when she’s on it’s not really stressful,” Smith, who will play next year up the road at Gustavus Adolphus, said. “I just need to make contact and get a base hit and most likely she’s going to score on it. I’m not too worried about it. I just need to make contact.”

Smith finished 1-2 with two RBIs and Kroll was 1-3 with a run scored. Kroll’s run came in the first inning when she followed Josie Kappes, who was hit by a pitch, with a single. Brainerd’s aggressiveness cost them a run from Kappes who was called out at home plate. But not Kroll who Smith safely hit home with a single.

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“It’s actually been pretty cool, we’ve grown a bond during our senior season,” Kroll said. “We’ve grown this connection and now she’s hitting me in. It shows on the field all of the relationships. We know we have each other’s backs.”

Following Kroll’s run, Addison Hillman was tagged out at home on the same play. Brainerd left the opening frame with just one run after loading the bases.

“That’s the way we play,” Warrior head coach Shane Jordan said when asked if he was too aggressive early in the game. “Tip your hat, they made some plays on us. I always want to play aggressively and I always want to make people get us out. They made some plays, but in the end, I think our aggressiveness paid off and wore them down and made them nervous. That’s what it does. It puts pressure on the defense. We were able to take advantage and get a victory.”

In the top of the third, Hopkins saw its first two batters reach base on an error and a walk. Both runners scored on two ground-outs to claim a 2-1 lead.

Brainerd answered in the bottom of the fifth. Kappes and Kroll both led off with singles. Olivia Tautges hit into a fielder’s choice to score Kappes. Emma Tautges then doubled home pinch-runner, Hillman. Smith followed with a sacrifice fly to score Emma Tautges and produce a 4-2 Warriors lead.

“I think it’s a game changer when Josie and I can both get on base to lead off an inning,” Kroll said. “It’s the one-two punch is what everyone calls it. It truly changes the atmosphere for the whole team.”

The Royals threatened again in the top of the sixth thanks to a leadoff single from pitcher Signe Dohse. Lauren Granger reached on a walk and both runners advanced to third and second with just one out.

The next batter was Lola Jessen, who hit a dribbler back to pitcher Olivia Tautges. She threw to Smith at third base where both Royal runners were standing near each other. Dohse was safe, but Smith quickly tagged Granger for the second out. After the dust settled, Jordan and assistant coach Amy Aho ascended from the Warrior dugout. After a brief discussion with the lead umpire, Jessen was called out because of a re-entry rule.

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“Everybody does their job,” Jordan said. “Our bookkeeping staff, the players, the coaches, the managers, everybody has a job. That leads to our success. It’s not just one person. It’s everybody. From the head coach to the person keeping track of the game on the scorebook.”

After a long talk between the umpire crew and the Hopkins head coach, Mya Tautges opened the bottom of the sixth with a triple. She scored on a Maren Ceynowa ground out to hand Brainerd a 5-2 edge.

Olivia Tautges then forced a pop to herself, a ground ball to the shortstop and a strikeout to end the game and send Brainerd to the title game.

“She’s done it for us all year long,” Jordan said. “We told Olivia once the playoffs started that the circle was hers. We were going to lean on her. She got a little tired and a little emotional, but she’s a fighter. She’s a Warrior. She has tremendous grit and fight. All these kids played so well together today. I’m really proud of them.”

Tautges struck out five, walked one and scattered three hits for the two unearned runs. She threw 96 pitches for her second complete game of the day.

“We just kept hyping Olivia up and kept reminding her how awesome she is,” Smith said. “She’s been pitching all through sections so clearly she’s been doing something right so we just told her to keep doing what she’s doing.”

After Brainerd’s Section 8-4A victory over St. Michael-Albertville, Smith was asked when she knew Brainerd was good enough to make it to state. Thursday she was asked when she knew they could play for a state title. She gave the same answer.

“After the first game of the season,” Smith said. “Just the team chemistry is insane. We’re all so close and even when we’re down we’re good. I had to give a little pep talk today that got a little bitter, but obviously, we came back from it and it helped us win.” Brainerd will face Forest Lake 1 p.m. Friday, June 10, in the Class 4A State title game. Brainerd defeated Forest Lake 2-1 in the last regular-season game of the year May 20.

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“This is insane,” Kroll said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. My parents just asked me if I was OK and I was like, ‘Yeah, Wow. It’s a lot.’ But going out our senior season on this is insane and I’m so grateful for it all.”

Hopkins 2 3 1

Brainerd 5 8 1

WP:Olivia Tautges. LP: Signe Dohse. 2B: Brd-Emma Tautges. 3B: Brd-Mya Tautges.

JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or jeremy.millsop@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop .

Class 4A State Semifinals

Score: Brainerd 5, Hopkins 2

Key: A three-run fifth inning propelled Brainerd into the state title game

Overall: Brd 26-0, H 18-7

Next: No. 2 Brainerd vs. No. 4 Forest Lake in Class 4A State Championship game at Caswell Park, North Mankato, Friday, June 10.

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