The Week Ahead: Z-M softball team to be tested
There's a key reason why Zumbrota-Mazeppa didn't appear nervous or rattled when it qualified for and won the Class AA state softball tournament last spring.
The Cougars are accustomed to facing high-quality opponents every time they take the field.
Their incredibly difficult regular-season schedule includes a trip through the other 11 teams in the Hiawatha Valley League, perhaps the most loaded softball conference in the state.
This week is a prime example of the competition Z-M lines itself up against during the regular season, in an effort to emulate the intensity and talented teams it will face in the postseason.
Z-M, which went 26-1 last season en route to its first state championship — and the first team state championship in school history — is off to a solid 3-1 start this season, its only loss coming against Wisconsin power Ellsworth, 5-2, in the team's season opener on April 4.
Today, the Cougars — who have won their past three games by a combined score of 33-0 — will face another Wisconsin state power, the only team to defeat them a year ago. Z-M travels to Hudson today for a 4:30 p.m. game at Grandview Park. The Cougars hung with Hudson in last year's meeting at Zumbrota, but Hudson scored a run in the top of the seventh to pull out a 4-3 victory.
Things get no easier for the Cougars the rest of this week. They play at rival Kasson-Mantorville in an early-season showdown at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Z-M's 9-7 regular-season victory against K-M determined the HVL champion, as the Cougars finished 11-0 in conference play, while K-M was 10-1.
These teams had some classic postseason battles in recent seasons until K-M moved up to Class AAA last season. K-M beat Z-M in the section championship games in 2013 and 2015, and in the section semifinals in 2014.
Z-M faces another HVL rival, Byron (3-1 overall), at 5 p.m. Thursday at Zumbrota.
The Cougars then close their week when they host their own four-team invitational on Saturday, with games against Becker, Moose Lake-Willow River and Norwood Young America. Becker (3-1) finished last season ranked No. 5 in the state in Class AAA. ML-WR (4-1) went 20-6 last year and lost by one run in the Section 7AA championship game. N-YA (2-1) went 15-9 a year ago.
WHAT TO WATCH THIS WEEK
• Lake City Invitational, 1 p.m., Tuesday: One of the top teams in the state in Class AA will host its annual invitational at Lake City Golf Course. Among the teams in the meet are Byron, Stewartville, Kasson-Mantorville, Lanesboro and Class AAA schools Rochester Century and Woodbury.
• Red Wing Invitational, noon, Tuesday: The top-ranked team in Class AAA at the end of last season is again one of the teams to beat in the state. The meet features eight Big Nine Conference opponents as well as Lakeville North, perhaps Red Wing's top challenger in Section 1AAA.
• Century at JM, vs. Mayo: The Panthers get a couple of early-season games against their intra-city rivals. JM and its talented pitching staff play host to Century at 5 p.m. Tuesday at John Adams Middle School. The Panthers then play host to Mayo — which just scored 13 runs against JM — at 5 p.m. Thursday in a non-conference game.