In Bob Sullivan's four previous years as head coach of the Central Lakes College fast-pitch softball team the Raiders won 111 of 150 games (.740).
Among those victories were two Region 13B and two Minnesota Community College Conference state championships and two trips to the NJCAA Division III tournament, where CLC placed sixth (2006) and second (2007).
Sullivan may be taking his best team to this year's national tournament, which begins Thursday at Rochester. The Raiders have been ranked No. 1 in Division III for virtually the entire season and have won 37 straight games since losing the season opener to Division II Lake County, Ill., on their trip to Florida.
The Central Lakes College Raiders softball team huddled up Monday at practice. CLC opens play in the national tournament Thursday at Rochester. Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood» Purchase reprints of this photo.
"If there's anything different, and I don't want to take anything away from past teams, but this team seems to be our most-balanced," Sullivan said. "If I had to pick something over and above previous teams it would be that. We're just a little bit deeper."
CLC opens against Queensborough of Bayside, N.Y. Queensborough is led by All-American nominees Iana Johnson and Jessica Payero. Johnson, a first baseman, was player of the year, first-team all-region and region all-tournament. Payero, a catcher, was first-team all-region and region tournament MVP.
What: NJCAA Division III national tournament
Thursday's games: Central Lakes College vs. Queensborough Community College, Bayside, N.Y., noon; CLC/Queensborough winner vs. Brookdale CC/Lorain County CC winner, 4 p.m.; CLC/Queensborough loser vs. Brookdale/Lorain loser, 4 p.m.
Friday's games: Consolation, 10 a.m. and noon; Winners' bracket, 2 and 4 p.m.
Saturday's games: Consolation, noon; Winners' bracket, 2 and 4 p.m., if necessary
"We don't know much about them," Sullivan said. "They're 16-5 and we're trying to figure out how come they've only played 21 games. There might be something missing, but I don't think it will matter. We've got to bring our 'A' game.
"Ridgewater (of Willmar) made it again. We've played some tight games with them. We can play with any team in the country, we've just got to bring the right game."
The Raiders are a complete package, starting on the mound.
Sophomores Malerie Riewer and Ali Mathison and freshman Olivia Graham give CLC three talented pitchers. Riewer is 13-1 with a 2.61 ERA and Mathison 10-0 with a 2.17 ERA. Graham, the country's top-ranked pitcher, is 14-0 with a 0.63 ERA.
"You can't go as far as we've gone with just one pitcher," Sullivan said. "It's very tough. People get tired, no matter what sport. We're very blessed that way, to have all three doing so well."
CLC's hitting complements its pitching. The Raiders are hitting .403 as a team.
Brittany Thorson leads the way with a .473 average and 53 RBIs. Bridget Badger is hitting .432 with 41 RBIs, Jess Michels .429 and 19 RBIs, Lindsey Latour .425 and 29 RBIs and Mathison .407 and 26 RBIs.
"We're very deep when it comes to offense," Sullivan said. "It seems like we've had one or two games where one through nine have gotten a hit. We haven't had that in the past. We always seemed to struggle here and there.
"Now we put nine people in the batters' box who all can deliver something, whether it's a bunt or a hit."
The Raiders' defense has been solid, with Izzy Anderson, Badger, Mathison and Riewer patrolling the outfield. Latour usually starts at third base, Kjelsy Loeffler at second, Thorson at short and Calliegh Johnson at first. Jess Michels and Hannah Brueland are the catchers.
"We can put three outfielders in the field who we feel very comfortable with," Sullivan said. "Our infield is strong. Our catching is pretty balanced between Hannah and Jess. They usually rotate. You've got to have defense to win games."
MIKE BIALKA may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5861.
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