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One for the books

Heading into the 2003 Tiger softball season, veteran coach Gary Burr was reluctant to predict what kind of season his team might have. His hesitation seemed well founded.

After all, the team had lost five starters, including all-state shortstop Melissa Murnane, to graduation. The pitching seemed to be there with all-conference performers Kristin Mainz and Erin Leone returning, but the hitting was questionable and the defense unproven.

Any pre-season concerns evaporated quickly as the Tigers started strong and got better with age. By the time the bats and balls were stored away for good, they had put together the best season in school history. They finished with a 24-5 season record, a second straight undefeated Missota Conference title, an extension to 30 games of a conference winning streak and a second place finish in the Class 3A state tournament.

"Don't ask me," Burr said when asked what made this team so special. "We obviously had good pitching and our defense was better than I expected.... Maybe the big thing is that we won the close games early and built a confidence that carried us the rest of the way. We always seemed to find a way to win."

Burr said the 2003 team possessed an uncanny ability to take advantage of the opposition's weaknesses.

"They were like sharks," he said. "When they smelled blood, they went for the kill. This group was very tough-minded."

The Tiger coach illustrated his "Jaws" analogy with a description of the come-from-behind 2-1 win over Austin on the final night of the historic Section 1AAA tournament.

"When we tied the game 1-1, their pitcher was visibly shaken," he said. "You could see our girls all of a sudden come to life and realize she was vulnerable. We went on to win that one and score nine runs off her in the second game. That's how we responded all year."

Eighteen players earned varsity letters for their roles in the championship season: seniors Mainz, Victoria Schuetzle, Lindsay Bell, Becca Anderson and Michele Swedin; juniors Jessica O'Leary, Ashley Harms, Diana Wokson, Shawna Speas, Casey Preston and Kayla Schmidt; sophomores Leone, Kelsey Nordling, Katie Donnelly, Terrin Pettis, Emily Nordstrom and Jill Johnson and freshman Kallie Flor.

Five Tigers were selected to all-Missota Conference team: Leone, Mainz, Schuetzle, O'Leary and Wokson. Swedin and Bell received all-league honorable mention.

Leone, who hit over .300 and won 16 games as a pitcher, was named the team's Most Valuable Player and joined Bell, Swedin and Schuetzle on the all-Section 1AAA team.

Leone, a hard-throwing sophomore who along with Bell made the Class 3A all-state tournament team, was also a second team selection on the StarTribune all-Metro team and the St. Paul Pioneer Press all-state squad. Bell received honorable mention on the Pioneer Press all-state team.

At .256, the Tigers posted one of the lowest team batting averages in recent school history with Bell (.325), Wokson (.323) and O'Leary (.306) the only regulars hitting above the .300 mark.

"We didn't have the big scoring offense that we have had the past few years," Burr said, "but we seemed to produce when we needed to."

More often than not, Schuetzle was the top clutch hitter, leading the team with 24 runs batted in on her 23 hits. Wokson drove in 13 runs and O'Leary, Bell and Leone 10 each.

Swedin led in runs scored with 18 while O'Leary, Schuetzle, and Bell each rounded the bases 17 times. Schuetzle led in extra base hits with eight, including five doubles, a triple and a home run.

Leone and Mainz combined to pitch all but one inning this season and both put up outstanding numbers.

Leone finished with a 16-2 record, an earned run average of 0.52 a pair of saves. She struck out 214 batters in 135 innings and hurled eight shutouts.

While Leone relied on speed to get the job done, Mainz mixed up her pitches and kept the opposition off balance. She compiled a 9-2 mark with an ERA of 0.56 and four shutouts. She struck out 39 and walked just five on 75 innings pitched.

The individual statistics tell only part of the story, however. Just as key is the fact the stingy Farmington defense gave up just 21 runs in its final 21 games

and that includes six in one game, the 9-6 section final victory over Austin.

Burr said he will certainly miss the contributions of the five graduating seniors, but he is confident next spring will bring more success to a program that has piled up an incredible 121-30 record (81-11 in the conference) since Farmington rejoined the Missota Conference in 1997-98.

"We will have five starters (Leone, Wokson, Preston, O'Leary and Johnson) back," he said, "and five more players (Speas, Donnelly, Pettis, Nordling and Flor) and who started at least five games for us this season. We should be fine."

"Fine." An appropriate word to describe the record spring season of 2003.