For the first time in eight years the Brainerd Warriors reached the Class 3A state tournament in 2010, losing 1-0 to Burnsville and 7-0 to Prior Lake.
With nine starters returning, including ace pitcher Nikki Anderson, the Warriors should be knocking on the door to return to state in June.
“We’re really optimistic,” Warriors coach Mike Zauhar said. “We believe our program is at the point where we’re not rebuilding, we’re reloading. When I first started coaching this is where we wanted to get.
“We expect to be good, we expect to compete for conference and section titles, but there are a lot of good teams out there. Like (Philadelphia Phillies manager) Charlie Manuel says, ‘We should be in the hunt. Whether we win the hunt is up in the air.”
Anderson is one of the state’s top pitchers. As a sophomore the left-hander went 16-2 with a 0.467 ERA. In 120.1 innings she struck out 208, walked only 12 and yielded just 41 hits. She shut out nine opponents.
“She’s an all-state caliber pitcher,” Zauhar said. “She’s gotten better, she’s gotten faster, and she’s working on a change that’s coming along very well. She has the mentality that she wants to get better. She’s not satisfied with where she’s at. She’s put in a ton of time in the weight room.”
Additional returning starters are Jenni Smolke, Karlie Manton, Alyssa Thoennes, Ashley Tibbetts, Carlie Sweet, Alanna Hanson, Chelsie Manton and Hannah Kangas.
Smolke, who can play first or second base, hit .321 with a team-high 18 RBIs and six extra-base hits.
“Jenni is a great stick, and has a great glove,” Zauhar said. “She’s a 3-year veteran. She’s just a very good player.
“(Assistant coach Dan) Bzdok made the comment the other day that only two kids in all the years he’s been here that he hasn’t touched their swing, (Abby) Rehberger and Jenni. We’re looking for an outstanding year out of her. If we get what we got from her last year we’ll be happy. She was dynamite last year.”
Karlie Manton will play third base and pitch. She batted just 16 times and went 5-2 with a 0.854 ERA in 41.1 innings pitched.
“Karlie’s improved her fielding,” Zauhar said. “She’s a versatile player. She has good speed, she’s very strong. She’s a weight room gal who’s bought into our weight program from the sixth grade on. She has increased her strength, and her swing has really developed. We’re excited about the possibilities with her.”
Tibbetts will play second base and can catch. She led the team in hitting (.383) and drove in 15 runs with 11 extra-base hits.
“She’s another 3-year starter, an outstanding leader,” Zauhar said. “She’s very versatile, one of the best second basemen we saw in the state last year. She’s a very good stick, plus she’s a dynamite catcher. She has a great arm.
“She’s our vocal leader. She understands the game. She’s in the Rehberger-(Megan) Arns mode.”
Thoennes, who batted just seven times, is an outfielder.
“Alyssa has good speed,” Zauhar said. “We’re still working on the offensive end with her. She’s made good progress. She was a very important part of the team as a pinch-runner last year.”
Chelsie Manton will play the outfield and pitch. She hit .214 and pitched 2.1 innings.
“Chelsie is another weight room kid,” Zauhar said. “Her strength is outstanding. She’s probably the fastest person on the varsity. Her bunting skills are very good, her outfield skills continue to get better, plus she can pitch.”
Kangas is an outfielder-infielder who played 12 games as a freshman, starting in left field at state.
“Hannah has a very good bat, and good speed,” Zauhar said. “She understands the game. She’s making progress coming off a knee injury. She’s getting quicker every day.”
Sweet hit .305 in 59 at bats and drove in nine runs. Hanson batted .268 with nine RBIs and started in left field until becoming the DH at state.
Zauhar expects senior Ali Beadle, a transfer from South Florida, to start at third base or in the outfield.
Mound moves back
The pitchers’ mound will be moved 43 feet from home plate instead of 40 feet.
“I stand in against (Karlie) Manton and Nikki and it still comes extremely fast,” Zauhar said. “I think what the high school league is trying to do is just like Major League Baseball, put more offense into the game, get more interest, be more fan friendly. I don’t see that much of a change to be perfectly honest, but time will tell.”
Seniors: Krista Bjork (1B), Jenni Smolke (1B-2B), Brittney Boeder (OF), Shalene Cole (OF), Alanna Hanson (OF), Chelsey Hanson (SS-2B), Trisha Kramer (SS-CF), Carlie Sweet (C-DH), Karlie Manton (3B-P), Alyssa Thoennes (OF), Ashley Tibbetts (2B-C)
Juniors: Nikki Anderson (P), Chelsie Manton (RF-CF), Nikki DeChaine (C)
Sophomore: Hannah Kangas (INF-OF)