June 6, 2024 at 5:05 p.m.

UNDERDOG TO  UNDEFEATED

The sixth-seeded North Branch softball team defied the odds and swept their way to the Section 7AAA championship and a state berth


By JEFF NORTON | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment
Sports Editor

North Branch’s regular season just didn’t go the way they wanted it to.

They lost star third baseman Erin Pederson for the season to a leg injury early on. Their normally reliable, steady and stoic senior pitcher Hannah Bernier hit some bumps this year, and the bounces just never went their way.

But all of that bad fortune reversed in the Section 7AAA bracket when North Branch swept their way through, winning all four games over the first, second, third and fifth seeds en route to winning the championship and earning a berth in the state softball tournament in North Mankato at Caswell Park this week.


North Branch 3, Rock Ridge 1

After upsetting Hibbing and Chisago Lakes last week, the Vikings found themselves at the top of the winners bracket facing Rock Ridge. The Wolverines were 18-2 heading into the game and had clobbered North Branch 20-5 just one month ago.

What a difference a month made, though, especially for Bernier. The senior ace locked up the Rock Ridge offense, which was averaging nearly nine runs per game this year. They scored one run early, but then Bernier kept them off balance and at bay the rest of the contest until reinforcements arrived. That back up came in the form of her battery mate and fellow captain, Peyton Verdon. The senior catcher smacked a two-run homerun, scoring Kaytlin Hammond, to put North Branch up in the fifth inning. The Vikes added an insurance run using Aubrey Charpentier’s speed, and that was all Bernier needed as she sat down the Wolverines batters the rest of the way.

“With Erin – who is NB’s second pitcher, as well – hurt early in the season, it forced Hannah to literally show up regardless of how she was doing physically or mentally every day and I think that is what made her so solid through this postseason,” Head Coach Kathy Crudo said of her star pitcher. “She has stepped up as a leader regardless of wins or losses in that circle for us and the whole squad is proud of her. She was unbelievable and left Rock Ridge scratching their heads.”



North Branch 3, Grand Rapids 1

The Grand Rapids Thunderhawks proceeded to knock Rock Ridge out of the consolation bracket, setting up a showdown with the Vikings. The nice part for NB was they only had to beat the Thunderhawks once, while the team from up north had to topple the Vikes twice since it was a double elimination bracket.

That was no mind to Bernier, though. She finished the job early and spun another gem, her third straight in section play, and the Vikings finished the job by winning 3-1.

Charpentier, who is only a freshman and has been touted by Crudo as one of the best young players she’s ever coached, set the tone in the first inning with a two run homer. Morgan Mann would later score on a wild pitch after Alexis Mathison had advanced her with a sacrifice bunt.

That was all Bernier would need. “Hannah shut almost all of their hitters down once again,” Crudo said. “She was pitching absolute smoke in the circle and giving her team everything she had.”

After the final out was recorded, the infield mobbed around Bernier as the Vikings celebrated going to the state softball tournament for the third time in Crudo’s six year tenure.

“I truly believe the reason we were so successful in this section run was everyone's Heart. Even though it isn't shown in a record book, it doesn't get recorded in a stat line, and it isn't something you can coach; if there was a tally for it, we would have had a book full these past couple of weeks,” North Branch’s skipper said. “Our theme running into the section play was "one more day". We wanted one more day with each other, one more practice, one more game, one more at bat, one more road trip, one more opportunity to wear "Vikings" across our chest. With the last out this past Thursday, we secured that for each other. This team LOVES one another. And I am not even exaggerating that. They are a team through and through. Most teams you just hope everyone gets along at least on the field, with this team; you can't keep them away from each other. That right there is a coach's dream, and extremely rare.”



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