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Softball preview: Pitcher-catcher combo provides valuable experience for Tigers

When asked what he expects his softball team’s biggest strength to be this year, Farmington head coach Paul Harrington needed a fraction of a second to answer.

Experience at pitcher and catcher.

Seniors Maddie Muelken and Emily Berdan are entering their fifth season as part of the Tigers’ varsity team. It will be their fourth spring working together as the team’s pitcher and catcher after leading the Tigers to a 45-30 record, three section finals appearances and a state tournament trip the last three seasons.

“That’s what you need. They have four years of experience working together,” Harrington said. “Maddie always throws a good game and keeps us in the game and we’re expecting her to take another step as she gets ready for college.”

Muelken, also a .307 hitter who knocked in 16 runs, will play softball next season at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. She’s coming off a junior season where she pitched 167 1/3 of the team’s 173 innings and posted a 2.59 ERA, 64 strikeouts and a Phil Hughes-like 10 walks. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they averaged over 4 1/2 runs allowed per game, meaning their 43 total errors resulted in an average of two extra runs allowed per game.

“To advance to state or finish in the top half of the SSC, we will need to cut down our errors,” Harrington said.

In addition to pitcher and catcher, the Tigers have the benefit of experience at several key defensive spots, including three infield positions held down by returning all-conference honorees. Emma Frost was an honorable mention pick at third base last spring after hitting .373 with three home runs and 24 RBI. Olivia Hazelbaker is back at shortstop after posting a .358 average and knocking in 13 runs. Caitle Dully was a first-team all-conference pick at first base after hitting .342 with five home runs and 18 RBI. Harrington said she has the versatility to play a couple other positions, as well.

The Tigers are hoping the solid hitters in the middle of their order can help make up for the loss of all-state leadoff hitter Carly Esselman, who hit .511 last spring.

Also back with varsity experience are outfielders Elly Rust and Sydney Redlin and infielder Lauren Higgins. Returning left fielder Tarah DeCroock is still recovering from a broken finger suffered late in the basketball season and hopes to be back by the beginning of May.

The Tigers will play indoor scrimmages in Eden Prairie the next three Saturdays before opening the regular season April 4 at Owatonna.