BEMIDJI -- In any season opener, it’s no shock to see a player or two make their long-awaited varsity debut. But rarely is that the case for an entire roster.
That was reality for the Bemidji High School softball team at the BHS softball field on Friday, though. The Lumberjacks were victims of a 6-4 loss to Brainerd with a roster consisting exclusively of newcomers to the varsity program.
“Gaining experience at the varsity level is what it’s all about,” Bemidji head coach Brad Takkunen said. “These kids are just nervous, and you can see it. Now you’re saying, ‘Hey, go compete against a very tough team.’ That’s good on one hand, but talk about being thrown into the fire.”
BHS is not a young team -- the roster is loaded up of 10 seniors -- but those players were just sophomores the last time the Jacks were on the field. After missing out on the 2020 season due to the pandemic, this battalion is focused on learning the ropes together.
“That’s the key. And that’s what I told them,” Takkunen said. “Did we play well? At times. Did we make mistakes? A lot. But fixing it is how we’re going to be the best team we can be when we have our playoffs. That’s got to be our focus.”
As far as debuts go, the Jacks (0-1) put together some solid performances. Senior pitcher Taylor Waukazo struck out eight batters, settling in and allowed just one unearned run over her first four innings of work before getting hit harder in the fifth. Jody Pemberton went 2-for-4 from the leadoff spot and was on base three times, while Beth Bolte batted 2-for-3 with a clutch single in the sixth inning.
“The good thing is that we’re going to be finding success every game,” Takkunen said. “If we focus on that, that’s exactly what (the goal) is. It’s like that anyway, but it’s really like that now with these kids.”
Bemidji had a 2-1 lead through four innings. Pemberton singled to lead off the first and later scored on a wild pitch, and Jordan Hunsberger scored on Courtney Bullie’s third-inning groundout.
But things unraveled on BHS in the fifth. The Warriors (1-0) plated four runs in the frame, including an RBI single from Emma Tautges and later a two-RBI single from Meghan Smith that came after a two-out error.
By the time it was over, the Lumberjacks’ 2-1 edge flipped into a 5-2 deficit.
“Those things happen on a lot of teams I’ve been a part of,” Takkunen said of the hit parade. “I’ve seen it with good teams, bad teams, it doesn’t matter. Things just get rolling and keep going. … But we did respond very nicely the next inning. We had opportunities to possibly tie it up.”
Bemidji rallied in the sixth. Bullie scored on an Elizabeth Oster RBI single, and Oster later came around on Bolte’s base knock -- still with just one out. But BHS left the bases loaded from there and, after Brainerd tacked on an insurance run in the top of the seventh, Bemidji was held scoreless in the bottom half.
Waukazo was saddled with the loss, throwing five innings and allowing five runs (one earned) on four hits and four walks. Tautges earned the win, spinning a complete game and allowing three earned runs on eight hits while striking out nine.
“It’s really tough to contain the frustration sometimes, but man, was it fun to be out here. It really is,” Takkunen said of the team’s return. “When you think about where we were, the girls look like they’re enjoying themselves. That’s what it’s all about.”
Bemidji will next trek to St. Cloud Apollo for a road doubleheader starting at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 20.
Brainerd 6, Bemidji 4
BRD 100 040 1 -- 6-5-3
BEM 101 002 0 -- 4-8-3
WP: Tautges (CG, 7 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 9 K)
LP: Waukazo (5 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 8 K)