Doused by a cooler filled with water by a couple of his players just a couple minutes prior, Gator Head Softball Coach Kent Christian was lost for words when asked what it meant to have this last softball season with his senior daughter, Mariah Christian.
“I can’t even go there,” Christian said, pausing under emotion. “She’s been a good one.”
Mariah provided a lengthier response when asked about sharing this final season with her dad, having shared a hug with him following the team’s latest victory.
“Before we left (for this game) he was talking about how the best days of his life was coaching his kids,” Mariah said, “so just that we could do this again and I could do it for my last time with him, that was amazing.”
The “this” Mariah was referring to was her and her Gator teammates clinching its third straight Section 8A title following a 14-3 five-inning victory in the section championship game versus the Red Lake Falls Eagles in Twin Valley on June 10. Earning the two seed, the Gators would open the Class A State Softball Tournament versus Section 2A Champion Springfield (19-5) from Caswell Park in North Mankato on Tuesday, June 15.
After winning two straight section titles (2018 and 2019) and earning state runner-up honors in 2019, the Gators wouldn’t get to play any spring softball in 2020 due the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly the entire 2019 team, outside 2020 senior Ella Koebernick, returned for this 2021 season.
“I think the weirdest feeling is that we never got a chance to try for this last year,” Mariah said, “so it’s just amazing.”
For fellow senior Emma Heggedal, she didn’t realize how much she missed not having a season last spring until this season started, from the singing on the bus rides to the cheering and all the memories in between.
“It makes it a little more disappointing that we didn’t have a season last year,” Heggedal said.
After a cancelled 2020 season, Coach Christian said his team’s mindset going into this one was: “let’s go play.”
“I think especially early in the year, teams weren’t where they were, where they should have been because of the last year,” Coach Christian said. “And you could see as the year went on, teams started picking it up, picking it up and there’s going to be a lot of good teams in northern Minnesota in the next couple of years.”
As teams improved throughout this season, the Gators continued to make it through its schedule unscathed, making its tenth state tournament appearance in program history, this time with an unblemished 26-0 record.
Speaking of that perfect season, asked whether his team had any pressure in continuing to post a perfect season and capping it with a section title, Coach Christian said it wasn’t really a topic discussed within his team.
“I’m really proud of the girls because it doesn’t seem like it’s ever came up,” Coach Christian said, “It’s just one game. Here’s another game, here’s another game, so we didn’t say a whole lot and hopefully we can keep it going next week (at the state tournament).”
The Gators bring a high-scoring offense to the state tournament, having posted 369 runs this season. The team’s 14.2 runs per game lead all teams in the state in Class A. This season, the Gators have outscored its opponents by a 369-47 margin, including a 75-4 margin in the section tournament.
After missing out on the state tournament experience last year due to COVID, Coach Christian said his team better be ready to go right away in this 2021 state tournament. Unlike prior years—where if a team loses its opening round game, it drops down into the consolation bracket— a first round loss this year means elimination from the tournament.
“There’s, what, four classes, 32 teams? There’s some that are going home after that first day. I don’t get it,” Coach Christian said. “… All these teams deserve to get more than one game at the state tournament, but you better win.”
What’s the goal for these Gator girls heading back to North Mankato?
“We’re not done,” Emma Heggedal said. “We’re going to give all we got.”
Mariah Christian added, “We’re ready for the competition.”
To see the complete story, read the June 16 issue of The Tribune in print or online.