By Jim Rueda
Free Press Sports Editor
Thursday’s softball game between Maple River and Mankato Loyola may have been for the Valley Conference championship, but there was definitely and added twist to the matchup.
On the field, Maple River’s Mikayla Rahn was the difference maker as she stymied the Crusaders with a timely changeup for six innings in a 6-3 victory. Behind the scenes, the contest marked the first time, and maybe the last time, that Eagles coach Laura Olson coached against her former team and former assistant at Loyola.
“It was a little weird seeing her over there in the other dugout,” Loyola coach Jessica Kirschner said. “We were together for about 16 years and we’re still good friends, but we tried to take the emotion out of it.”
Olson, who left Loyola before the 2012 season, agreed: “I think it was tougher on us coaches than it was on the players. When you coach a group of players for any length of time, they become your girls.
“That’s what I felt today, like the Loyola players were my girls. It’s a difficult situation because you want both teams to do well.”
Both Olson and Kirschner said no mention of the coaching relationship was mentioned by the players leading up to the game.
“Our players knew it was an important game but only because we knew the winner had a good chance to win the conference title,” Olson said. “Of course we still have to take care of business with our remaining games.”
Left-handed pitcher Rahn was the one taking care of business for most of Thursday’s game. She relied on the changeup early and often and it was effective.
Loyola had just four singles and one unearned run through the first six innings. Rahn, who is coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in her throwing shoulder last summer, struck out five and walked five.
“She definitely kept us off balance early in the game,” Kirschner said. “She had really good control with the changeup and you don’t see that that often at this level.”
Rahn produced with the bat, too, smacking two doubles and driving in two runs. Kelly Gerdts also had two hits and joined with Kristen Huck and Molly Landsteiner for one RBI apiece.
Trailing 6-1, Loyola finally got to Rahn in the bottom of the seventh. Aunikah Bastian led off with a single to left before Maddie McCargar lined a triple over the right-fielder’s head. Jordyn Strachan singled home McCargar and advanced when an infield throwing error put runners on second and third.
With the tying run at the plate, Maple River center fielder Mckarah Schaefer delivered the defensive play of the game. Jordyn Theuninck hit a fly to center which Schaefer caught and then threw a strike to the plate to nail Strachan, who was trying to tag up. The next batter popped out to end the game.
“We had to go on that one,” Kirschner said. “It took a perfect catch and a perfect throw and a perfect tag to get us and they made the play.”
Loyola (8-1) plays today at Cleveland. Maple River (10-3) hosts St. Clair Monday.