Before the Hastings High School softball season started this March, coach Dean Robinson and his wife Kandi were talking about this year's team. Dean Robinson was talking about how it wouldn't be easy for the team this year, as 11 girls had graduated from the 2010 team that placed third at the state meet.
His wife didn't buy that.
"This could be the year," she told him. "You get these girls doing what they need to do, and practice hard, and this could be a Cinderella story. They're going to do some special things."
She was right.
On Friday afternoon, Hastings won the first state softball title in school history with a dominating performance. The Raiders outscored their opponents 27-3 in three games, setting records along the way. Robinson was in no way surprised, especially not after seeing the work ethic of the team all season long.
He said the team missed just one practice all season long, and that was because they had volunteered to fill sandbags one Saturday morning in east Hastings earlier this spring.
He had tried to give them two other days off, and they wouldn't listen. While the junior varsity tournament was going on in Hastings during the season, Robinson had to work there and told the team to take the day off. They refused and held a captain's practice.
The day after graduation, Hastings had a 6 a.m. practice planned, but Robinson indicated to the team he would be canceling it. There was an all-night graduation party, and the four seniors wouldn't be leaving that until 5:30 a.m. He wanted to either cancel the practice or move it back, but the four refused.
By 5:45 a.m., Robinson had the field prepared and by 6 a.m., practice was under way. They practiced for two hours that day.
"They weren't even tired - they had a regular practice," he said. "They were dialed in. They knew what it would take - it would take a little extra than the other years to reach our goal of taking this whole thing. It's just awesome they were that dedicated."
When Hastings right fielder Kaitlin Stark caught the foul ball to record the third out of the seventh inning and seal the state championship, Robinson said he took a deep breath and savored the moment. He told the team from the start of the season that he was coaching for one reason - to see huge smiles on their faces, and he knew the best way to do that was to win a state title. When that finally happened, it was just as good as he had hoped.
"It was just an unbelievable feeling," he said. "I had shivers running down my spine."
A big celebration took place in the center of the infield after the third out. Past Hastings players even joined in the party, jumping up and down as if they had just won a state title too. In fact, the way Robinson put it, all those former players deserve a part of the trophy, too.
"I just hope they realize that this is state tournament title is theirs, also," he said. "It goes back to the girls who went through and built this program. It's not just the girls who are playing right now. These seniors now, they're the ones who were freshmen four years ago. They are the players they are now, and the people they are now, because of the girls they played with. This state tournament is for the whole town and the whole program. It's just a great thing to be a part of."
This was the fourth straight trip to the state tournament for Hastings. Three years ago they placed third and last year they placed third.
This season's success, including a 22-2 overall record, was possible because of the strength of the entire team, Robinson said.
"They were all team players," he said. "I told them at the beginning of the season that not for one second could they be individuals. We needed to do this as a team. I think everybody realized they were a big part of this team. You can't just do it with nine players. You have to have a solid roster buying into the system. Buying in to the program. You have to do whatever you can for the team. Every single one of our players was there for one reason - that was to win as a team and to win for the town of Hastings."
Hastings scored a state-tournament record 11 runs in the top of the seventh en route to a blowout win over Bloomington Jefferson, 16-1.
Hastings fell behind 1-0 in the bottom of the second, when the Jaguars scored on a walk, a bunt, a sacrifice fly and a single.
The Hastings offense didn't score until the fourth inning, but even prior to that Robinson was liking what he was seeing from his team.
"We put the ball in play," he said. "They got us out, but it wasn't like their pitcher was striking us out. I knew we were right on her as far as timing. I told the girls, the next time we come around in the batting order, we were going to be able to do some damage."
He was right.
In the top of the fourth, Michaela Mills doubled to right center field with one out. Hailey Lundquist knocked her in with a single, then Connell hit a two-run homer over the right center field fence to put Hastings up 3-1.
In the fifth, Lundquist knocked in a run and then Kaitlin Stark knocked another in putting the Raiders up 5-1.
In the top of the seventh, Hastings exploded for seven hits and 11 runs. Wical knocked in a run on a sacrifice. Lori Bauer then hit a three-run home run.
Mills knocked in two runs with a single, and Connell did the same.
Stark delivered the final blow, hitting a three-run homer to left field.
"Hitting is so contagious, especially with this team," Robinson said. "When I was told after the game we scored 11 runs in one inning, I was surprised - I didn't realize we did that. The girls just kept hitting."
The 11 runs breaks the previous record of 10 runs in an inning, set by Austin in 1977.
Six Hastings players had at least one RBI. Eight of the nine players to come to the plate had at least one hit.
Connell, meanwhile, turned in another great pitching performance for the Raiders, striking out nine batters. She allowed just four hits.
Defensively there were a number of strong plays turned in by the Raiders, too, including one hard-hit ball that ricocheted off Bauer's glove at third base. Robinson was moving toward third when the ball was hit, and scooped up the ball and fired to first get an out.
While the first game turned into a blowout, the second game was anything but, especially until the top of the sixth inning.
Hastings took a 1-0 lead in the first and a 3-0 lead after the second inning. In the fifth, Hastings added another run to go up 4-0, but Hopkins countered with two runs to make the score 4-2.
In the sixth, Hastings put the game out of reach with three runs.
"That was the most intense game of the year for us, besides North St. Paul, when we played them earlier in the season," Robinson said. "I knew they were going to be a good hitting team. I know four or five girls on that team, and we knew what they could do. Treya learned from every pitch and tried to surprise them on what pitch she was throwing next. She did a really nice job of that."
Hastings got out of all kinds of trouble in the field thanks to big defensive plays and a big pitching performance by Connell.
In the second inning, Hopkins had runners on second and third with nobody out. Connell struck out the side to get out of the jam.
In the fourth, a hit batter, a single and a bunt loaded the bases with nobody out.
Connell struck out the next two batters, and then got a ground-out to Bauer at third to get out of the jam.
In the fifth, it was more of the same. Hopkins got back-to-back doubles to score a run. Connell got out of the inning after a nice catch in centerfield by Lundquist and a strikeout.
"We've been doing that all season - getting out of jams like that," Robinson said. "If you watch our team and the bases are loaded, or there is nobody on, we always look the same. The girls just make the plays."
Connell finished with nine strikeouts and one walk. She allowed eight hits.
Offensively for Hastings, Stark got Hastings on the board in the first inning with a fielder's choice that scored Robinson.
In the second, Rachel Thomas got the rally going with a one-out single. Shelby Wassink singled to left and Robinson walked to load the bases. Mills singled, scoring one run, then Lundquist singled to score another.
Hastings got a run in the fifth on a solo homer by Connell.
In the sixth, Wassink and Robinson walked. Mills doubled to center to score two runs. Connell singled up the middle to score another run.
Hastings finished with 10 hits. Mills had three, Connell had two and Thomas had two.
Vs Forest Lake
Hastings faced a familiar but unexpected foe in the state championship game - Forest Lake, a fellow Suburban East Conference team.
The Rangers entered the state tournament with a 16-6 record, but beat Totino-Grace in the first round, 4-3. Totino-Grace entered the state tournament with a 24-0 record.
In their second-round game, Forest Lake beat North St. Paul, 3-1.
"It was just crazy to see them," Robinson said. "It just shows you how tough our conference is."
Hastings had defeated Forest Lake earlier in the SEC season, 8-2.
Hastings won the title game, 4-0.
The Raiders scored single runs in the fifth and sixth innings, then added two in the seventh to pull away.
The Rangers' pitcher, Taylor Burmeister, threw a lot of off-speed pitches early in the game. It took a while for Hastings batters to get their timing right. As they were doing that, Burmeister started to struggle to get the pitch over for a strike. That combination of factors spelled success for the Hastings batters late in the game.
Hastings got a run in the fifth after Robinson was hit by a pitch and eventually scored on a double by Stark.
In the sixth, Hastings added another run. Bauer doubled and scored on a single by Robinson.
In the seventh, Lundquist reached on an error. Connell singled. Wical knocked in Lundquist with a sacrifice fly. Bauer then doubled to score Jordan Marshall, who was running for Connell.
In the bottom of the seventh, Connell got quick outs on a line drive to Robinson and a fly out to leftfielder Teresa McCullen. The final out came on a foul ball that Stark chased down between right field and first base.
Connell struck out five and allowed three hits in the final.
The all tournament team
Three Hastings players were named to the all tournament team. They were Robinson, Mills and Connell.
Robinson, a senior, hit .400 during the state tournament with four runs, an RBI and two walks. She excelled defensively, too, with a number of nice plays at shortstop. During the season, she touched the ball 70 times and committed just one error.
Connell, a senior, had a phenomenal state tournament both at the plate and in the circle.
She hit .600 with six hits in 10 state-tournament at-bats. She drew three walks, scored three runs, had two home runs and six RBI. On the season, Connell struck out just twice.
"It was just incredible," Robinson said. "That's what we were expecting from her down there - she stepped it up from the start of the season. At the plate, she just had a great eye from the beginning of the season on. Her swing, I don't want to say it's perfect, but it was as close to perfect as you could see. You put that with the strength she has, and she just had a great eye for the ball, too."
Now, on to her pitching statistics: She won three games, had an earned-run-average of 1.00 and struck out 23 batters. Connell allowed just 15 hits in 21 innings and walked two. She finished the season with a 21-1 record.
Mills is a freshman. She hit .500 at the state tournament with six hits in 12 at-bats. She had five RBI, four runs and two doubles.
"It's amazing the talent she has, especially at the plate, as a freshman," Robinson said. "She can hit it over their heads. She can slap it. She can bunt it. Then there's her speed. There were a few times this year I held her at second and she kept running anyway, and it wasn't even close at third. It took me a little bit to realize how fast she is.
"We're expecting a ton of good stuff from her from here on out, that's for sure."
Hastings saw the careers of four successful players come to an end. Connell, Robinson, Wical and McCullen all graduated two weeks ago.
Connell and Robinson were captains since their freshmen year. Wical was the team's starting first baseman and McCullen was the starting left fielder.
Replacing the seniors on this year's roster obviously won't be easy, but it's a situation similar to the one from last year when Hastings lost 11 players to graduation.
Still, the future looks bright for the Raiders. There were eight freshmen on this year's team, including a few who played major roles.
Juniors Jordan Marshall, Bauer, Kelsey Nelson and Stark will all return next year, as will sophomores Kaylynn Johnson and Hailey Lundquist.
Hastings also has a number of good players coming up through the younger ranks. Robinson works with their coaches during the off-season so that they are all heading in the same direction. He's especially thankful for his assistant coaches and for all those volunteer coaches who have helped out in numerous ways, often with little to no fanfare. This state title wouldn't be possible without them, he said.
"This freshmen group, for example, those coaches did a phenomenal job with them since 12U," he said. "They've been doing the same things the varsity is doing. It's huge. There's no way these freshmen would have done what they did if it weren't for those coaches."