Final products take time.

It was always going to be unrealistic for Winona to play its best softball right away this season after not getting a 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Winhawks head coach Mitch Grossell knew that his team had a chance to be really good, but it was still figuring out how to really play seven great innings of softball.

But a flip has officially been switched in the last four weeks. The Winona team that would let opponents hang around is long gone. Winona is a well-oiled machine right now that is eviscerating every team in its path, using a lineup that’s as good as anyone's.

The Winhawks will head to Mankato to compete in the Class AAA state tournament on Tuesday and they'll come in as one of the hottest teams around. They’ve won eight of their last nine games, using a loaded lineup and a team that’s bought into defense. Plus, when sophomore pitcher Makayla Steffes toes the rubber, Winona believes it can beat anybody. The first opponent in Winona's path will be a 21-2 Sartell squad on Tuesday at 11 a.m.

RELATED: Wabasha-Kellogg and Winona take two different paths on journey to state

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“We got better at practicing,” Grossell said. "We jumped on teams at the beginning of the year and then we’d lay back and let them score a couple runs at the end of the game. It’d look like it was sort of a game when it really wasn’t. I challenged them to not do that anymore and just to throw goose eggs up there and play good defense and make diving plays. By gosh, we are all over the field diving for balls.”

Steffes sits at 15-3 this season with six shutouts to her name already. She has a minuscule 1.22 ERA and has struck out 151 batters this year.

But it’s the batting order that could really carry Winona at the state tournament. Grace Fricke is hitting .557 with four homers, 14 doubles and 32 RBIs this season. Senior Paige Grafton has driven in 42 runs this year and she’s hit six homers to go along with a .480 batting average. Steffes isn’t just a pitcher either. She’s hitting .530 with 13 stolen bases and a team-best 39 runs scored. Alma Johnson, Macy McNally and Olivia Poulin are all hitting better than .400. Ava Hamsund and Mackenzie Simmons round out a lineup that all features hitters who hit better than .300.

Winona cheers during a Section 1AAA playoff game against Kasson-Mantorville on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, at Todd Park in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Winona cheers during a Section 1AAA playoff game against Kasson-Mantorville on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, at Todd Park in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

“We’re deep all the way through,” Grossell said. "We have four or five girls with 20 or more RBIs. There’s not a weak spot. It’s nice to have as a coach because you know you’re always in it. ”We’re deep on the bench, too. There are a couple girls who don’t get to play much who are just as good as everybody else. But we’re just on a roll right now so we’re going with what we have.”

Winona (19-5) is as talented as anybody but sometimes Grossell has to remind himself that the Winhawks are still very young at some key spots. Grafton is the only senior in the starting lineup and she’s the only one who got a little taste of a state tournament in 2018.

“We’re young but we’re experienced,” Grossell said. "We have a lot of experience playing. We make some foolish mistakes but they’re usually aggressive mistakes. They are not for lack of effort. We sometimes run into outs when we shouldn’t but it’s hard to get mad at them when we’re so aggressive. As long as we’re aggressive, we’re good.”

Winona’s projected starting lineup

P Makayla Steffes, So.

C Macy McNally, So.

3B Grace Fricke, Jr.

LF Paige Grafton, Sr.

RF Kayla Robinson, Jr.

CF Olivia Poulin, Fr.

2B Ava Hamsund, So.

SS Mackenzi Simmons, Fr.

1B Alma Johnson, Jr.

CLASS AAA STATE TOURNAMENT

QUARTERFINALS

Caswell Park, Mankato

Tuesday, June 15

(All games at 11 a.m.)

No. 1 Mankato West (20-5) vs. No. 8 North Branch (15-8)

No. 4 Winona (19-5) vs. No. 5 Sartell (21-2)

No. 2 St. Anthony Village (23-1) vs. No. 7 Benilde-St. Margaret (17-6)

No. 3 Becker (17-6) vs. No. 6 Cretin-Derham Hall (11-12)

SEMIFINALS

Caswell Park, Mankato

Tuesday, June 15

(All games 5 p.m.)

Mankato West/North Branch winner vs. Winona/Sartell winner

St. Anthony Village/Benilde-St. Margaret winner vs. Becker/Cretin-Derham Hall winner

CHAMPIONSHIP

Caswell Park, Mankato

Wednesday, June 16

Third-place game, 10 a.m.

Championship game, 12 p.m.