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Softball preview: Laden takes over program

The Farmington Tiger softball team has a good foundation for the coming season.

Rob Laden has some talent to work with and some holes to fill in his first season as a high school softball coach.

Laden, who has spent the last 12 years coaching club, youth and traveling softball in Lakeville, ran his first practice Monday afternoon with a varsity squad that was missing five starters from last year's team that Heather Ballstadt guided to a 14-10 record.

"As a new coach I don't know a lot about the players yet. I am excited to start practice and get to know the players and see what we have," Laden said. "I do know some of the seniors from coaching against them in summer ball. I know they are a talented group."

One talented player Laden is certainly aware of is senior captain Sam Jensen, whose .564 career average is one of the best in state history. Jensen hit .575 last year with 17 extra-base hits and a .644 on-base percentage in 24 games and will likely see time in the outfield where the Tigers lost starters Sarah Gunderson and Amanda Kepler to graduation.

In the infield the Tigers will be looking for leadership and production from returners Shannon Doherty and Kelsey Betzold as they try to overcome the losses of regulars Sydney Silk and Kirstee Rotty. Like Jensen, Doherty was an all-conference selection at shortstop last season after she hit .303 and finished second on the team with 19 runs scored. Betzold was a .338 hitter in her first full-time varsity season at first base and clubbed seven doubles while drawing a team-high 16 walks.

The Tigers' pitching situation resembles the ones in the infield and outfield -- some experience is gone but there are returning players ready to step in. Last year, senior Amanda Karppi pitched in 20 of the team's 24 games and ate up 117 innings while going 12-6. Her absence opens the door for freshman Ashley Betzold, who had a 2.36 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 32 innings last year, and Megan Nekowitsch, who appeared in two games.

Whoever is on the rubber will likely be working with Dani Muelken, who emerged to provide solid defense at the catcher position in her first varsity season behind the plate last year. Muelken also hit .254 with 10 RBI.

Four other players who saw limited varsity time are expected to return this season: outfielder Brooke Searles, outfielder Brittney Zuther, pitcher Brianna Heikkila and infielder Amanda Verch.

Laden expects there to be some bumps in the road as these new players continue to ease into the varsity game, but he said he still plans to manage the game aggressively.

"I like my team to take chances, be aggressive, always back each other up," he said. "In the beginning of the season we will make mistakes. It's part of the game. By playing aggressively they will be better by the end of the season when it really counts."

Laden also hopes to make the program better by working with the Farmington youth softball program to get participation numbers back on the rise in the coming years.

"The other coaches and myself are excited to reenergize the program. Not only at the school level but also through working with the Farmington Girls Fastpitch Program," Laden said. "We will be doing a mentoring program where varsity and junior varsity players will work with our Farmington youth teams ... to get the two programs working together and helping each other."

Laden, who coached his 11-year-old daughter's youth team last year, is also hoping success on the field will help make softball a life-long passion for his players.

"My goal for the season is to get better as a team, have the girls ending their season proud of how they played and most importantly that they look back at their experience and say they had fun playing fastpitch softball," he said. "The ultimate grade of success to me is to see how many of these young ladies get involved and coach their own daughters some day."

The Tigers open their season April 6 with a home game against Hutchinson at the new Farmington High School fields.