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Expectations have been enormous for the Rosemount softball team this season, and with good reason.

The Irish earned the No. 1 seed in the Class 4A softball state tournament, which takes place Thursday and Friday at Caswell Park in North Mankato. They won the Class 4A title two years ago with many of the same players who are seniors this year.

The players admitted the pressure of repeating as champions got in their way last year, when they lost to East Ridge in the section finals and didn't make it to the state tournament.

That failure has fueled Rosemount since.

"There was a lot of pressure to repeat last year," senior pitcher Jessa Snippes said. "Last year stung a lot. We're using that as motivation, but I think we're a lot more mentally prepared."

The Irish (23-0) are obvious favorites, but their coach, Tiffany Rose, has made a point of stressing the journey rather than the outcome.

"I've told the team since Day 1 that this team is so unique, you might never get the chance to play with a team like this again," Rose said. "It's important that they enjoy the whole season, getting to be together. If they focus on just being together and doing their best, it doesn't matter if they win a state championship. It will already be a successful season."

The fields, class by class

The Class 4A field looks to be one of the stronger ones in recent years. All eight teams can cite a strong reason to expect success.

Forest Lake is the defending champion and boasts two successful pitchers in Hannah Tong and Avery Muellner. Maple Grove, White Bear Lake, Hopkins and Shakopee all have top-notch pitchers. Farmington is battle-tested, emerging from the South Suburban Conference. St. Michael-Albertville ran away with the Lake Conference title.

In Class 3A, Winona, runner-up a year ago, looks to take the next step, but Big Nine Conference rival Mankato East stands in the Winhawks' way.

In Class 2A, Le Sueur-Henderson emerged from rugged Section 2 and received the No. 1 seed. St. Charles, Proctor and Pipestone all harbor legitimate hopes.

In Class 1A, 2021 champion Randolph (22-1) lost just once, to Class 3A power St. Anthony, and picked up the No. 1 seed. But there is no easy path to the title, not with such formidable opponents as Badger/Greenbush-Middle River, Moose Lake-Willow River and perennial power Edgerton SW Christian in the field.

A schedule change

The tournament format has been tweaked slightly. In past seasons, the championship games were scheduled just a half-hour apart. That meant championship games went on at the same time and competed for the spotlight.

This year, the championship game start times are staggered 90 minutes apart, giving each a chance to enjoy the spotlight.