LUMBERJACK FLASHBACK: The Bemidji softball team that danced longer than any other
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in a series titled Lumberjack Flashback, highlighting some of the greatest spring sports teams, athletes and moments in Bemidji High School history. Stories on each of Bemidji’s seven spring sports programs will be released in line with this year’s originally scheduled state tournament dates.
A routine grounder was anything but. The ensuing throw to first clinched more than an out. And the celebration that followed was for much more than one win.
“We had been in that section championship game, boy, I bet it was six, seven, eight times,” said Bemidji High School softball head coach Brad Takkunen. “We lost some close games. To finally do it was really gratifying.”
But on that sunny, blue-skied day in May 2018, there was no denying the Lumberjacks’ shared feeling of triumph in winning the first section title in program history.
“When you get into high school athletics, pretty much everyone’s goal is to get to a state tournament,” said Samantha Edlund, the leadoff hitter and a senior on the team. “It was definitely our top goal. I think we knew we could do it. We went after it with our whole heart, and it ended up paying off.”
The final play was ground ball to Evette Morgan at shortstop. The junior fired a strike to first baseman Gabbi Takkunen to beat the runner, booking Bemidji’s reservations as first-time guests at state.
“Honestly, when I first got that ball, I knew we won it,” Morgan said. “It was a perfect play. It was really simple, I guess. It was an unreal moment. I don’t remember fielding it. I just remember looking at Gabbi at first base and thinking, ‘We’re going to state.’”
‘A new, fresh start’
BHS put together a nice regular season, going 13-7 and earning the top seed in the Section 8-3A Tournament. The team’s wealth of talent -- eight players hit over .300 -- helped separate it from the pack, yet the cohesiveness is foremost in their memories.
“That team in particular was a really well connected team,” Morgan said. “We didn’t really have any problems. We were all there for the same reason, and that really helps.”
The 2017 squad graduated nine seniors, so the returning bunch ushered in a new era for the program.
“It was a new, fresh start, and we didn’t know exactly how we were all going to play a role on the team,” Edlund said. “Everyone was just up for the challenge of having a new start. All of us put our complete trust in each other and put our whole effort into the season.”
The section tournament still came with its fair share of adversity. After eking out a 10-8 win over Alexandria in the opener, the Jacks trailed in each of the next three games.
“The reality is that they believed in each other, and they had the tools necessary to put some runs up on the board,” Takkunen said of being able to rally. “Evette and Gracie (Fisher) and even Emma (Stanoch) being able to hit some home runs, you can turn the tides pretty quickly.”
In the semifinal game against Detroit Lakes, the Lakers struck with a home run on the first pitch of the game. But Morgan belted a two-run blast in the bottom of the frame, and it proved to be the difference in the 2-1 win.
Bemidji made it through the winner’s bracket unscathed, affording them two chances to defeat a Sartell-St. Stephen foe that already had one loss in the tournament.
But things felt different at the diamond that day.
“I remember coming out, and everyone was kind of nervous,” Edlund admitted. “I think it was because we had never been in this position before. The atmosphere wasn’t completely like, ‘Let’s go get it.’ It was almost like we were a little scared.”
The Sabres blitzed BHS with a 5-0 lead through two innings. The Lumberjacks cut back as close as two, but Sartell-St. Stephen held firm for a 7-5 win. Bemidji left 10 runners on base, including seven in scoring position.
“We were really nervous,” Morgan said. “The next day we came and thought we’d just work on our fundamentals, and play the game for fun.”
Whatever the Jacks were missing in the first matchup, there was nothing of the sort in the rematch.
The Sabres again scored first, but Morgan clubbed a three-run homer as part of a four-run second inning for BHS. Sophomore Maddie Hanson took over from there, allowing just two runs (one earned) in a complete-game effort from the circle.
The offense kept busy, working up to an 11-2 drubbing, and history came at the conclusion of a 1-2-3 seventh inning.
“As a coach, you preach that and you tell them the message that, if you guys can put it together, you can be special,” said Takkunen, who was in his 23rd year at the helm of the program. “They actually bought in and proved it.”
A brand new stage
Following a police escort out of town, Bemidji reached the state tournament in North Mankato the following week.
In the Class 3A quarterfinals, eventual state champion and top-seeded Faribault proved itself with an 8-0 win behind McKayla Armbruster’s 17-strikeout no-hitter -- at the Lumberjacks’ expense. Later that day, though, BHS kept the season alive with a six-run rally and Morgan’s walk-off home run shortly thereafter, defeating Rocori 10-8 in the consolation semifinals for the program’s first state tournament victory.
“I remember it was a high ball in center field,” Morgan said. “I don’t think I got all of the ball, but it was a pretty good feeling to think that we were going to move on. We felt a little down in that game because we were falling behind, but we came back because we kept working. … We didn’t stop fighting.”
The season ended a day later with a 12-1 loss to Holy Angels in the consolation championship. But the history of that season remains alive and well.
“Seeing the faces of the kids and the excitement of the fans, it was really special,” Takkunen said of the state experience. “It goes quick. You’re only there for one or two days. But I know that they made a lot of memories.”
The program needed 30 years to hang its first banner, but “2018” will now display in the rafters for a lot longer than that.
“It felt like we were representing not just our team from that season but every other team before us that had been working to get to state,” Edlund said. “It felt like we finally represented the program. To see the banner up in the gym at Bemidji High School, it’s really special to know we were a part of that accomplishment and pretty much made history with that team.”
LUMBERJACK FLASHBACK SERIES
Boys tennis: The boys tennis tandem that reached unprecedented heights
Softball: The Bemidji softball team that danced longer than any other
Boys track and field: TBA
Girls track and field: TBA
Boys golf: TBA
Girls golf: TBA