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Riverland hopes second chance leads to title

Unfinished business. That's the way the Riverland softball team is viewing this year's Region XIII Tournament.

A year ago the Blue Devils were the top seed and the host team in the four-team region. A trip to the national tournament was on the line for the winner. Riverland went home in third place.

"The six sophomores have a bad taste in their mouth from last year," said Riverland sophomore Katie Berg of Hayfield. "It's not going to happen this year."

Once again the Blue Devils are the top seed in the four-team, double-elimination region tourney. And they again are the host team, with play being held at Todd Park on Friday and Saturday. Riverland plays its home games on the college campus, but still views playing at Todd Park as a plus.

"Everyone has played here so it's a home-field advantage," Riverland coach Lisa Quednow-Bickler said.

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The other teams competing for the region title are Ridgewater and Central Lakes from Minnesota and Dawson, Mont. Dawson, the No. 4 seed, beat both Ridgewater and Central Lakes in a tournament this season. The Blue Devils have a 3-1 record against both of their Minnesota Community College Conference foes this season.

"It's hard to go undefeated against one team for so long," Riverland sophomore Erin Evans of Austin said. "But it's good because we know the good hitters on their team and their pitchers."

Evans believes Riverland, 22-9, is a more complete team than a year ago.

"We have great offense and defense," she said. "We work together as a team and we have great pitching. And we believe in ourselves; we feel we're going to go to nationals."

Riverland has a lot of different weapons on offense. The Blue Devils have a lusty .449 team batting. Melanie Gabrielson (.568), Hannah Tvedt (.567), Beth Harsma (.549) and Evans (.506) are all hitting over .500 and Sarah Moore (.493) is close. Abbey Bergstrom leads the Blue Devils with 28 runs batted in, Moore has 27 RBIs, Tvedt has 24 and Gabrielson 23. Harsma leads the team with 37 runs score.

"We have the offense to create and great defense," Berg said. "And we have three great pitchers."

Pitching may be the X-factor for the Blue Devils. Riverland does not rely on a single ace, but rotates sophomore Marissa Kelsey and Bergstrom, a freshman from Blooming Prairie. Susie Rayman also see action, mostly in relief. Kelsey is 10-2 with a 2.58 earned-run average and Bergstrom is 6-3 with a 2.50 ERA.

"Pitching depth, that may be one area where we're one up on everyone else," Quednow-Bickler said. That could be a factor as teams going deep into the tourney will play a minimum of three games in two days.

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Quednow-Bickler says Bergstrom will start Friday's 2 p.m. opener against Ridgewater and Kelsey will pitch the second game at 4 p.m.

Others sophomores back besides Evans and Berg are Harsma, Gabrielson, Kelsey and Stephanie Vollbrecht. Evans believes the veterans will carry the load.

"As a sophomore and captain, I really want to step up as a leader," she said.

Berg believes the Blue Devils are within reach of their goal.

"We just have to concentrate and keep our focus," she said. "There's a salty taste in our mouth. We have to get it done; this is the year."

Quednow-Bickler has also stressed to the second-year players that this will be their last opportunity. She believes it is one that will not slip away.

"I think my sophomores have really come together as a group and said this is for them," the coach said. "I told them you don't get many chances to go to a national tournament so you have to seize the day."

Guy N. Limbeck is a Post-Bulletin sports writer. His column runs every Thursday. He can be reached at glimbeck@postbulletin.com.

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