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East Ridge softball: Raptors beat North St. Paul, two wins from state

East Ridge junior starting pitcher Kelsey Ihns delivers during the Raptors' 3-1 win over second-ranked North St. Paul in the section quarterfinals.1 / 2
East Ridge infielder Kayla Bohlke scoops up a grounder in the Raptors' win over North St. Paul. East Ridge takes on Stillwater this week.2 / 2

The East Ridge softball team put itself in the driver's seat. The Raptors are two wins away from the state tournament after beating perennial power North St. Paul 3-1 in the third round of the Section 4AAA playoffs.

East Ridge, the third seed in the section, opened up a 3-0 lead on second-seeded North St. Paul in the game, which took place at McKnight Fields in North St. Paul on Thursday, May 23, then held on for the win.

East Ridge head coach Tom Nemo said the win over North St. Paul, which was ranked fourth in the state in Class AAA, was probably the biggest in the program's four-year history.

"It was a huge win," Nemo said. "It's not the North St. Paul of old, but they're still very good. Those kids play together every summer and have been playing together a long time. They have a lot of chemistry and play with moxie."

East Ridge junior starting pitcher Kelsey Ihns said it is fun being in this position.

"I've never seen my team smile so much," Ihns said. ""After the game our team was really excited. It was a really good feeling overall. It was just a great game and a lot of fun to play."

North St. Paul (18-3) is currently coached by Cliff Charpentier, who was an assistant with Nemo at East Ridge. The two are still good friends.

"Everyone thought it was the Charpentier and Nemo battle, but it was really just another game," Nemo said. "It was just a very nice win for us."

East Ridge junior outfielder McKenna Karras delivered the big hit in the win - a two-run bases-loaded single in the top of the third inning to put the Raptors up 2-0. East Ridge added an insurance run in the top of the sixth inning to make it 3-0. North St. Paul scored its lone run in the bottom of the sixth to cut the deficit to 3-1, but that's as close as the Polars would get. In addition to Karras, junior infielder Kayla Bohlke had two hits for the Raptors.

"They, frankly, didn't threaten until us the sixth inning," Nemo said. "We threatened almost every inning, but we just couldn't get a key hit. We stranded a lot of runners."

For East Ridge, Ihns led the way from the mound, throwing a complete game, allowing just five hits and one run.

"Kelsey pitched excellent," Nemo said. "She's been a horse all year and done a great job. She's turned things around and been our go-to player, she really has."

"I had one or two innings where I thought I was a little shaky," Ihns said. "I had a lot of adrenaline running through my body. But, I settled down and my defense made great plays. We came together and solidified it toward the end."

Ihns was 8-4 during the regular season with a 1.72 ERA and 84 strikeouts.

East Ridge, which is currently 12-8 after going 9-8 in the Suburban East Conference, earned a shot at North St. Paul after beating Tartan 9-7 on Wednesday, May 22.

East Ridge was up 4-1 early in the game, but a grandslam by the Tartan (7-10) put the Titans ahead 5-4. However, in the bottom of the fifth inning, East Ridge scored five runs and took a commanding 9-5 lead.

"Tartan surprised us," Nemo said. "They hit the ball better than I thought they would. They gave us a good scare."

In the win, freshman Christina Pickett and sophomore Olivia Huffman each had two hits for East Ridge. Nemo said the bottom of the Raptors' order came up big in the win.

"From our fifth through our ninth hitter, everyone got a key hit when we needed one," Nemo said.

The win over North St. Paul sets up a showdown with East Ridge and top-seeded Stillwater, the defending Class AAA state champion, in the section semifinals on Wednesday, May 29, at McKnight. In the double-elimination tournament, the winner of the semifinal game moves on to the championship on Thursday. The loser will have to beat North St. Paul or Hill-Murray on Wednesday in order to play in Thursday's championship game, where they'll then win back-to-back games to advance to state.

"To win that first game is the key," Nemo said. "We win that first one and somebody has to come back and beat us twice. It's not over by a long-shot, but we control our own destiny."

East Ridge fell 3-0 and 7-4 to Stillwater, which is currently 17-3 and ranked seventh in the state in Class AAA, in a double-header back on May 8.

"We can play with Stillwater, we just need to mentally believe we can beat them," Nemo said. "I know we can. They're the defending state champs and are solid, but can they be beat? Sure they can."

Ihns said she believes the matchup with Stillwater will provide a tough and competitive game.

"If we continue to play the way we've been playing there's no doubt in my mind we can win," Ihns said.