Who was that young lady wearing a mask while playing a gritty third base for the Brainerd Warriors softball team this season?
Hannah Kangas left an indelible impression on opponents with her fielding, hitting and leadership.
So, why the mask?
“(Brainerd pitcher) Nikki (Anderson) is so fast,” Kangas said. “I often have to creep up for bunts, and just in case they get a hold of one and I’m not ready for it ... My dad brought that up, and we thought it would be a good idea to have something on just in case.”
Kangas made a seamless transition to third base this season from center field in 2011. She made only one error in her first 29 chances.
“Basically, I practiced a lot, and took a lot of ground balls,” Kangas said. “The coaches (Mike Zauhar and Dan Bzdok) walked me through situations. It wasn’t a bad transition.”
Kangas injured her knee during her sophomore year of basketball and needed major surgery as she tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus. She returned to the field after about five months of rehab, but didn’t feel close to 100 percent for months.
“Because of her aggressiveness, strong arm and fielding ability we moved her to third base,” Zauhar said. “She’s been outstanding at third base. She’s learning the position as each week goes by. She anticipates the bunt very well. She comes in hard. She can bare-hand it. She has a good arm. We’re very pleased with her defensive abilities at that position.”
Zauhar and Bzdok have also been pleased with Kangas’ hitting. Entering Thursday’s loss to Elk River, she was batting .339, leading the team in triples (3) and was tied for the team lead in total bases (32).
“He’s been instrumental in my season, keeping my swing under control, changing little things, but not changing too much,” Kangas said of Bzdok. “He’s given me a lot of confidence with the things he’s said to me. He has so much knowledge. It’s been a privilege to work with him.”
The 3-year starter, who helped Brainerd to state tournament trips in 2010 and 2011, hit just .143 as a freshman, but bumped up her average to .296 last season.
“We noticed that as a ninth-grader she had a tremendous swing,” Zauhar said. “She comes from a baseball family. ... Her baseball background is extensive, and it shows. Her swing is very good.”
Kangas’ dad, Ike, and other relatives, play or have played for the Wolf Lake amateur team near Perham. Hannah played baseball through about fifth grade.
“From a young age, seeing fast pitching from baseball and going to softball was a big transition,” she said. “Softball is a bigger ball. (Baseball) helped. I had to shorten my swing from baseball to softball, but baseball definitely was very helpful.”
She had a breakout game in the Section 8-3A tournament against Rocori as she tripled, hit an inside the park home run and drove in six runs as Brainerd beat the Spartans 11-3 in a losers’ bracket game.
“The team didn’t want to be done,” Kangas said. “We had a little bit of a setback against Elk River.”
Before Brainerd beat Rocori, it lost to Elk River 5-0.
“Her (Elk River) game was nothing to write home about,” Zauhar said, “but true to Hannah Kangas form she came back more determined to have a decent second game in a do-or-die situation, and had a couple of big hits.”
Other notable efforts:
• Jackson Walters, boys track and field, set a conference-meet record in the 110 hurdles.
• Lenka Zelinska, boys tennis, finished third in the section singles tournament.
• Nikki Anderson, softball, struck out 11 in a 3-hit shutout of Sauk Rapids and struck out 14 in a 3-hit win over Rocori.
• Jake Kassulker (shot put) and Josh Murrey (pole vault) qualified for the state track and field meet with runner-up section performances.
• Michael Foley, boys golf, was the season conference medalist.