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2014 Spring Preview: Veteran-rich East Ridge softball team eager to show what it can do

East Ridge first-year head coach Afton Murray addresses her softball team at a recent practice. Murray took over the team for Tom Nemo after two years as an assistant. (Bulletin photo by Patrick Johnson)1 / 2
East Ridge senior Kelsey Ihns gets ready to hit at practice. Ihns has played varsity softball for the Raptors for five years. (Bulletin photo by Patrick Johnson)2 / 2

The Section 4AAA championship has haunted Kelsey Ihns since last season, but it’s also been a source of motivation for the East Ridge senior pitcher. 

“I’ve actually dreamt about it a couple times,” Ihns said. “I think about what I could have done better. It eats me up inside and what’s driving me this season.”

Last year the East Ridge softball team reached its first-ever section championship, but couldn’t get past Stillwater and 2013 graduate Heather Heacox.

East Ridge, the third seed in the section tournament, beat second-seeded North St. Paul twice in the playoffs to make it to the section title game, but then ran into a wall against Heacox and the Ponies. Stillwater won the championship game 6-2 behind a complete game, three-hitter by Heacox.

East Ridge brings back 12 players from last year’s team and, with Heacox out of the picture, the Raptors are hungry for their first trip to the state tournament.

“We haven’t talked about goals too much, yet, but that’s one thing the girls have said right away,” said first-year East Ridge head coach Afton Murray. “We want to beat Stillwater, because that hasn’t happened in East Ridge softball history, and we want to make the state tournament. Those are the two main big ones we want to achieve.”

Murray was an assistant coach for East Ridge the past two seasons. She takes the reins of the team from Tom Nemo, who retired from coaching after last year.

Murray is a 2003 Park High School graduate and a teacher at Pullman Elementary School in St. Paul Park. She is the third head coach of East Ridge in the program’s five-year history. 

Murray played for Park coaching legend Charlie Whitbred along with current East Ridge head boys basketball Paul Virgin while she was at Park. She also said Nemo was “a great mentor.”

“There’s some things we do similar as far as warm-ups and stuff like that,” Murray said. “I think he and I were on the same page as far as strategies, too. But, there’s things we do a little differently, too. The girls have been good about those adjustments. Growing up I had a lot of good coaches and I picked up things from each and every one of them. I played and coached in college, too, so I’ve taken things from playing at that level and coaching at that level and brought them into our team too.”

Murray, who played and coached college softball at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said it’s “different” being a head coach instead of an assistant. 

“It’s a lot more work, that’s for sure, but it’s been good,” she said. “Knowing the girls ahead of time has made a huge difference. We picked up right where we left off.”

Keeping momentum would be a good thing for East Ridge.

The Raptors are coming off their best season in the school’s four-year history. East Ridge finished 13-10 overall, 9-8 in the Suburban East Conference and reached their first-ever section final.

“We all push each other,” said Ihns. “We just need to continue to have the grit and the grind that we had last year, continue to emphasize that this year and see where it takes us.”

Ihns has played varsity softball for East Ridge all five years the Woodbury-based school has been open. She said she’s looking forward to hitting the field for the Raptors one last time. 

“I’m super excited,” Ihns said. “I can’t wait to see what this team brings. I’m excited to see if we can go all the way this year.”

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

“It’s not just about me, it’s about the whole team,” Ihns said. “We’ve worked so hard to get to state, I hope we can do it and I think this team can do it. If we do make it to state it’ll be a huge accomplishment for this program.”

Ihns is a team captain this season along with senior shortstop Kayla Bohlke, who led the team in batting in 2013, and junior catcher Olivia Huffman. East Ridge has seven seniors on the roster — Ihns, Bohlke, Allison Tarara, McKenna Karas, Michaela Anderson, Rachael Brenner and Tori Ostman. Ihns, Anderson and Brenner are all pitchers. 

“To have that experience on the mound is huge,” Murray said. “It’ll depend on who we’re playing and who’s hot. If someone is throwing well, that’s who we’ll go with.”

East Ridge also brings back sophomore sluggers Megan Tarara, an outfielder, and Anna Roth, an infielder. 

Murray said the team is well-balanced.

“Offensively we have a lot of power and have some speed,” Murray said. “Overall, things are looking like they’re headed in the right direction. We have to stay healthy and keep our focus. With having that state tournament goal in mind, we still have to focus on one game at a time and one pitch at a time – not get too far ahead of ourselves.”

Focus and intensity are two things Murray has stressed right away.

“We’ve tried to bring an intensity every day at practice,” Murray said. “When you’re inside so long it can be hard to bring that intensity, so we’ve really been working hard on focusing on what we’re doing at that moment in time - one pitch at a time, one drill at a time.”

East Ridge, defending conference champion Forest Lake, Stillwater and Hastings are expected to be the teams to beat in the SEC this year. Like last year, North St. Paul and Stillwater will likely be the teams to beat in Section 4AAA.

Weather permitting, East Ridge will play its first game of the 2014 season at home against Hastings on April 7.

“Getting off to a good start will be key to building confidence and getting into a rhythm,” Murray said. 

Ihns said she was eager to get things started.

“I’m ready to go,” she said. “I can’t wait.”

-Patrick Johnson

Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson has been the South Washington County Bulletin’s sports editor since 2008. He reports on and oversees coverage of high school and amateur sports in south Washington County and Woodbury. Prior to joining the Bulletin, Johnson worked for other Twin Cities suburban newspapers. He is a University of Minnesota graduate.
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