College softball: Defense is key for Lady Jays

WORTHINGTON -- "You can score 15 runs but if you can't stop the other team from scoring a 16th, you lose."Minnesota West softball coach Jeff Linder comes from a background of stressing defense. That will continue during his second stint as the La...

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ZACH HACKER/DAILY GLOBE Minnesota West’s three returning sophomores (left to right) Rebecca Kazemba, Becca Linder and Rachael Evans pose for a photo during practice Thursday at the Health and Wellness Center on the campus of Minnesota West.


WORTHINGTON - “You can score 15 runs but if you can’t stop the other team from scoring a 16th, you lose.”
Minnesota West softball coach Jeff Linder comes from a background of stressing defense. That will continue during his second stint as the Lady Jays’ skipper.
“I’m all about defense,” he said during practice Thursday afternoon. “We’ve really been stressing defense. I think we’ve got some good hitters, so I think we’ll be able to score runs. We need to minimize mistakes and, if they do get a rally going, we need to minimize their scoring. We need to make the plays to get ourselves back in the dugout.”
Linder got softball at Minnesota West going again in 1999 after a nearly 20-year hiatus. His final season on the Lady Jays’ bench was 2004 when he turned the reins over to Rosalie Hayenga-Hostikka, who coached West through the 2014 season before Sam Lynn took over for one year in 2015.
He inherits a team that finished last season with a record of 7-25 overall and 7-18 in the MCAC. From that squad, the Lady Jays welcome back three sophomores. That includes starting pitchers Rebecca Kazemba and Becca Linder, both of whom can also catch and play infield. Rachael Evans missed much of last season with an injury and will provide vital experience in the Lady Jays’ outfield.
“I’ve always been about doing the little things right and I think the girls appreciate that,” Coach Linder said. “I’m excited to see what they can do in a game. My sophomores have been really good about being leaders and adapting to me as their new coach.”
Although they have experience at key positions, the Lady Jays’ overall numbers are low. They have just nine players signed up for softball right now, though Coach Linder hopes that will change as the season gets fired up.
That said, he is happy with the women he has - provided they stay healthy.
“In terms of numbers, we have what we have,” he said. “But what we do have is a great group of hard-working girls. I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen out of them so far.”
Highlighting the newcomers are Breanna Nelson and Tanner Gunnink. Before bringing their services to Minnesota West, the pair helped Edgerton/Southwest Minnesota Christian make two straight Class A state tournament appearances. As juniors, Nelson and Gunnink assisted in a third-place finish at state for coach Andrew Fleischmann’s bunch. They took the consolation championship as seniors.
Both of the former Flying Dutchmen will hold down infield positions with Olivia Hopwood - a freshman out of Mountain Lake Area - expected to join them. Tayler Wasmund, a 2015 graduate of Sibley-Ocheyedan High School - provides even more depth in the pitcher’s circle and will play on the infield when she’s not asked to toe the rubber.
Joining Evans in the outfield will be 2015 Worthington High grad Maer Abella - a state qualifier in the shot put for the Trojans track and field team last spring - and Taylor Noid, who made her presence felt as one of Minnesota West women’s basketball team’s top threats this past winter. At this point, coach Linder expects there will be some growing pains. His team needs to take the field for real before he can truly make an assessment.
That will happen Saturday when the Lady Jays travel to Austin for three games under the dome. They will take on Mesabi Range, Gustavus Adolphus College’s junior varsity and Northland.
“At this point we really need to play,” coach Linder said. “We’re tired of practicing indoors. We need to figure out what we need to fix, and the only way to do that is by actually playing the game.”
Linder is excited to get back to a program he resurrected 17 years ago. Although he admitted there may be some bumps along the way, he still expects a smoother transition than his last first year on the bench.
“That was tough,” he said. “We had a lot of growing pains in those first few years. But Coach Hayenga really brought this program up to another level. To come back now with where it is now compared to when I first started - I’m really excited.”

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ZACH HACKER/DAILY GLOBE Minnesota West freshman Tanner Gunnink readies to take a swing with fellow first-year player Breanne Nelson feeding the pitching machine at practice Thursday. Gunnink and Nelson were teammates last season on the Edgerton/Southwest Minnesota Christian squad that took the consolation championship at the Class A state tournament.

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