ROCHESTER — The Rochester Community and Technical College softball team is not lacking in confidence as it heads into the Region XIII four-team tournament this week in St. Cloud.
The Yellowjackets are the third seed and they went 1-7 combined against the top two seeds during the regular season. But first-year coach Jaimi Stejskal says his team is “very confident” heading into the double-elimination event, in which the winner earns a berth in the NJCAA Division III National Tournament. .
“We come into this tournament hungry to move forward,” Stejskal said. “I’m excited for this team.”
Not only is Stejskal in his first season coaching the Yellowjackets, but the RCTC also has a brand new roster from a year ago. Despite this, RCTC went 26-20 and won nine of its last 12 games.
“We didn’t know what we were going to have with all the new freshmen and also a new coaching staff,” Stejskal said. “But this team has worked very hard, is strong and has grown and come together as a team.”
RCTC will face second seed Anoka-Ramsey Community College in the first round at 10 a.m. Thursday. #1 St. Cloud Community and Technical College will face #4 Minnesota West Community College in the other game of the first round.
The Yellowjackets were 0-4 against Anoka-Ramsey during the regular season, but Stejskal said playing better defense can solve many RCTC problems.
“They have a solid and experienced squad, but we can play with them,” Stejskal said. “We just need to have strong and consistent sets defensively. Usually we have one or two innings where we’re struggling and we’re not there to support our pitches.
The Yellowjackets have excelled offensively this season. They averaged 8.1 carries per game while hitting .390 as a team with a .448 on-base percentage.
“Our shot is solid,” Stejskal said. “We’re a solid hitting team, so if we can jump right in and score and strike out every inning, there’s a good chance we can take game five from Anoka.”
Bella Mehrkens, a graduate of Pine Island High School, has been a key player both at home plate and in the RCTC circle. She leads the team in batting average (.495), homers (8), doubles (12) and RBIs (50). On the mound, the right-hander is 11-7 with a 5.53 ERA.
Third baseman Kelsey Grunewald, the team’s cleanup hitter, is batting .465 with 11 doubles, 5 triples, 3 home runs, with 48 runs scored and 44 RBIs.
“She’s determined, aggressive and hungry and has been a great leader for us this year,” Stejskal said.
Leading off hitter Journey Smith played strong defense in center field and is batting .397 with 10 doubles, seven triples, four homers, with 46 runs scored and 34 RBIs.
Stewartville’s Abby Scanlan also played solid shortstop defense while batting .378 with 11 doubles, three triples, 42 runs scored and 31 RBI while hitting third overall.
“When we have fun, we are successful,” Stejskal said. “We just want to win every round and put it all together. We’ve got nothing to lose, so we’re hungry for that win in Game 1.
The two first-round winners will advance to the 4 p.m. winners’ bracket final on Thursday. The losers play at 2 p.m. in a playoff game.
On Friday, play will continue at 10 a.m. The title match is at noon and the si match is at 2 p.m.
RCTC went 1-3 against St. Cloud in the regular season and 4-0 against Minnesota West.
“The girls know they can beat St. Cloud,” Stejskal said. “My team is young, but they know they can do it. Our strategy is to work to win every round. This is the philosophy we have. We look forward to the competition and are confident that we have the ability to activate it and do what we need to do to succeed.