NORTH MANKATO - Forest Lake catcher Bethany Weiss knew Maple Grove pitcher Maddie Wihlm well, having played against her frequently in summer club softball.
So she was more than a little shocked when Wihlm, an All-Metro first-team selection as a pitcher, threw her a pitch Thursday that made her eyes light up.
Weiss, the consensus leader of the defending Class 4A champion Rangers, hit Wihlm's first pitch to her in the top of the first inning for a long two-run home run to left-center, sparking a five-run first inning that turned into an 8-0 victory over Maple Grove in the Class 4A semifinals of the softball state tournament.
"I've gone against Maddie for a really long time, and she's an amazing pitcher," Weiss said with a broad smile. "I don't know if she just missed her spot, but it was my favorite pitch and I swung out of my shoes for it.
"It was probably the most meaningful ball I've hit all season."
Forest Lake (22-3) had narrowly advanced to the semifinals, getting past Shakopee 6-5 on a seventh-inning infield hit.
"Our performance in the quarterfinals was gritty," Weiss said. "We made some errors, but our energy on the bench really helped. And our offense has been amazing these past two games, which is what we've been working on all season. We came out here with almost a perfect game and no errors, and Hannah [Tong] pitched great."
Elsewhere in Class 4A, Rosemount's Paige Zender showed her special fondness for Caswell Park, Field 1.
Zender, who led the metro in home runs during the regular season, bashed three in two games Thursday, running her season total to 14. She hit two in Rosemount's 10-0, five-inning quarterfinals victory over Hopkins and another to help the Irish improve to 25-0 with another 10-0 victory, this time in six innings over White Bear Lake, in the semifinals. Both games took place on Field 1, one of six fields at Caswell Park, where the state tournament is held.
Two years ago, on the same field, Zender hit a grand slam in the Class 4A championship game, lifting Rosemount to a 5-1 victory over Forest Lake. Friday's final will be a rematch of 2021.
"I love this field. I remember playing on it in 10U and 12U. I don't want to play on any other field here," Zender said.
"She's a real gamer," Rosemount coach Tiffany Rose said. "She brings it every game. She has a focus, she's determined, she knows what she wants. I'm super proud of her and how she leads the team, at the plate and in the field. Caswell Park has been good to that girl."
Pitcher Jessa Snippes also homered in Rosemount's semifinals victory, as did senior outfielder Kayla Bartol, who followed Zender's clout with one of her own for the second time Thursday.
"We've been like this all year," Rose said. "The top of the lineup produces, the bottom produces. We're really rolling, and everyone feels good."
Snippes gave up three hits and recorded eight strikeouts in the semifinal.
Chisago Lakes 5, Delano 0: Perhaps no team in the tournament has gotten more mileage out of a first state tournament appearance than Chisago Lakes.
The Wildcats made it to the Class 3A third-place game in 2022, their first trip to the state tournament. This year, they're convinced it's all about completing what was started then.
Sophomore third baseman Melana Larson had two RBI and sophomore center fielder Chloe Rusa went 3-for-3 in a victory over Delano. The Wildcats will play for a state championship for the first time in team history.
Chisago Lakes (21-4) advanced to the semifinals thanks to one big hit, a three-run home run by Anna Zaruba, another talented sophomore, in a 3-2 quarterfinal victory over Holy Angels.
"From the start of the year, we've been saying we're going to play all 18 kids," said coach Brenda Carlson. "We don't have the stars, but you can put anyone in at any time because they've got experience and they've got heart."
Carlson said her decision to lean on her entire roster rather than a group of senior leaders has paid off.
"On the bus ride over here, you could tell they were ready," Carlson said. "They said, 'You can rely on us.' And it wasn't the seniors that did that. It was the sophomores. It was all 18 of us."
Mankato East 7, Cretin-Derham Hall 6 (10 innings): Sydney Jacobs' sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th inning scored Peyton Stevermer from third base, lifting Mankato East to victory.
The Cougars (24-3) had loaded the bases as a result of Cretin-Derham Hall miscues, leading to the winning run.
Kylinn Stangl pitched all 10 innings to pick up the victory for Mankato East. Brooke Nesdahl pitched all 10 for Cretin-Derham Hall (17-9) and was tagged with the loss.
Cretin-Derham Hall center fielder Samantha Haider made the highlight play of the tournament, crashing into the center-field fence while robbing a Mankato East player of a home run in the eighth inning.
"That was the best moment of my life," Haider said after the game. "It was great. You can't be mad about that loss. … We played our hearts out."
Cretin-Derham Hall's victory in the quarterfinals was its first state tournament win since 1991.
Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton 2, Le Sueur-Henderson 1: An eighth-grader, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton pitch Autumn Leach doesn't have a lot of mileage on her. But she was sure her outing in the Class 2A semifinals, helping the Rebels to a victory over No. 1 seed Le Sueur-Henderson, was the best performance of her career.
Leach pitched the first four innings of DGF's 6-4 victory over Pipestone in the quarterfinals, then came back with a sterling effort in the semifinals. Leach pitched 5⅔ innings, scattered five hits and outdueled Le Sueur-Henderson standout pitcher Chloe Brandt. Her strong game kept the Rebels in striking distance until they mustered two runs in the top of the seventh inning for a 2-1 victory.
"Yeah, that was probably my best game," Leach said. "They were a No. 1 team, but I just put my faith in my defense and my pitching."
Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton manufactured two runs in the top of the seventh inning. Rebels relief pitcher Natalee Linman retired the side in order to get the victory.
"She's an eighth-grader. She just goes out and throws," said co-head coach Tyler Dreschel. "Last year, she just came along for the ride. This year, she gave us five, six solid innings. Then we brought in our tenth-grader with a little bit different speed and she just closed it out."
Leach sees her game Thursday as the first of many great softball memories.
"That was probably my best game, and since I'm only 13, I've got a lot of years to go," she said.
St. Charles 8, St. Agnes 3: A two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh inning in the quarterfinals was the catalyst for St. Charles' victory over St. Agnes in the semifinals.
"It was kind of a weight off of our shoulders," St. Charles coach Adam Gust said. "This team has had some success in the past. To lose in the first round would have been a pretty big downer."
The Saints built a 5-0 lead early in the semifinal, took the best St. Agnes had as the lead dwindled to 5-3, then completed the victory.
Gust lauded his team's resiliency for withstanding the St. Agnes comeback.
"They were in the state championship game two years ago, and this is pretty much the same group," he said. "Ever since then, we've been trying to put them in challenging situations. We try and find the best teams in the state to play and we do our best to put them in high-stress situations. When [St. Agnes] got the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first, we were able to say, 'Hey, girls, we're just getting outs.'"
Badger/Greenbush-Middle River 2, Moose Lake-Willow River 1: Cassidy Dahl singled in the fourth inning, driving in sisters Kinsley and Kailey Hanson for the winning runs.
Moose Lake-Willow River had taken a 1-0 lead in the first inning.
Badger/Greenbush-Middle River advanced to the championship game for the fourth time since 2015.
Kinsley Hanson allowed nine hits and struck out just one but picked up the victory. Moose Lake-Willow River's Sarah Christy gave up six hits and struck out 11.
Edgerton SW Christian 2, Upsala 1: Mateya Gilbertson bounced a bases-loaded single up the middle with no outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, giving the Flying Dutchmen a victory.
Upsala had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the second when a fielders choice groundout by Erica Roske scored Brenna Graves from third base.
Edgerton SW Christian won state titles in 2016 and 2019.
Rosemount 10, Hopkins 0 (five innings): The nerves that plagued Rosemount in the Section 3 final last week were nowhere to be found in the quarterfinals, when the Irish scored in double figures for the 18th time this season.
Snippes pitched a two-hitter with seven strikeouts and Zender homered in her first two at-bats. The Irish pounded 13 hits.
"Jessa struck out the first two batters, and that kind of set the tone for us," said Zender, who improved her metro-leading home run total to 13.
White Bear Lake 7, St. Michael-Albertville 0: The Bears made their intent known early, plating six runs in the bottom of the first inning. The first five batters all reached base, three of them on doubles. Senior pitcher Chloe Barber pitched a complete-game four-hit shutout with five walks and seven strikeouts for White Bear Lake (21-4). Her younger sister Heidi, the Bears' catcher, hit the game's only home run in the bottom of the second.
Maple Grove 2, Farmington 1: Crimson pitcher Maddie Wihlm was a one-player team for Maple Grove (21-2). A senior, she singled twice, drove in what became the game-winning run in the bottom of the fifth inning and pitched a complete game, giving up two hits and one run while striking out 14.
Forest Lake 6, Shakopee 5: After Shakopee's Kate McCutcheon tied the score with an RBI single in the top of the seventh, Forest Lake kept its hope of repeating as Class 4A champion alive when Karianne Drury scored from second base on an infield single by Maddie Larrabee to deep second base.
Mankato East 10, Rocori 0 (five innings): The top-seeded Cougars hit two home runs in a six-run fifth inning. Mankato East had 11 hits in support of pitcher Kylinn Stangl, who pitched a three-hitter and struck out nine.
Cretin-Derham Hall 1, Becker 0: Seventh-grade pinch runner Maddie Mulcahy stole home in the top of the fifth inning for the only run of the game, lifting the Raiders to victory. Cretin-Derham Hall pitcher Brooke Nesdahl struck out 12 and gave up two hits.
Delano 2, Winona 1: Pitcher Kaitlyn Pink singled to left in the top of the eighth inning, scoring Carly Stuckmayer with the go-ahead run and lifting the Tigers (21-3) to victory over the No. 2 seed. Pink pitched a complete game, allowing nine hits. Winona left 10 runners on base.
Chisago Lakes 3, Holy Angels 2: Sophomore first baseman Anna Zaruba clubbed a three-run home run in the fifth inning to lift the Wildcats to victory over the Stars. Ashley Mandell picked up the victory for Chisago Lakes with 11 strikeouts.
Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton 6, Pipestone Area 4: The Rebels (23-2) scored three unearned runs with two outs in the top of the seventh inning, two of them on a single by Skylar Spessard, to rally past the Arrows.
Le Sueur-Henderson 3, Pequot Lakes 0: Pitcher Chloe Brandt carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and finished with a two-hit, 11-strikeout victory. Shortstop Rhyan Fritz hit a two-run home run for the Giants (21-5) in the bottom of the third inning.
St. Charles 5, Watertown-Mayer 4: Grace Buringa's single up the middle scored Emma Chuchna from second base, capping a two-run rally in the seventh inning for the No. 2-seeded Saints (24-2).
St. Agnes 2, Proctor 1: St. Agnes (21-4) scored two runs in the top of the second inning without a base hit, on two walks, two stolen bases, an error and a sacrifice. Proctor scored its only run in the first inning, then left seven runners on base in the final six innings. Angela Proper got the victory, scattering seven hits and striking out nine.
Upsala 1, Randolph 0: Senior catcher Mollie Leners hit an RBI double in the top of the sixth inning to send unseeded the Cardinals (24-2) past the top seed. Pitcher Isabelle Leners survived six walks and three hits and struck out seven for the victory.
Edgerton/SW Christian 3, Bethlehem Academy 1: Junior second baseman Ana Veldkamp had scored all of runs for the Flying Dutchmen (17-6), going 4-for-4.
Badger/Greenbush-Middle River 11, Menagha 1 (six innings): Pitcher Kailey Hanson and senior catcher Cassidy Dahl each had three hits, powering the Gators (25-1) to victory.
Moose Lake-Willow River 7, New Ulm Cathedral 2: The Rebels (22-3) awoke for a five-run fourth inning and scored two more runs in the fifth.