Rebels Sotfball Coach Mark Carlson
Even with snow on the ground, there is always an air of expectation when the second week of March arrives and official softball practice can begin. Players arrive to the first day of practice with their personal goals and dreams of what they are going to accomplish as a player. The senior players are well aware that they will be experiencing the last time they will be a part of a high school team. While at the same time, coaches are busily assessing the talent and skills of the year's group of athletes.
Since November, a number of players had already been participating in Sunday Open Gym events working on a variety of their skills with their parents or other players. Open Gym events saw athletes from Moose Lake, Willow River, Barnum, Cromwell, and even Duluth, traveling to Willow River High School to work toward improving their own skills. You never knew who would be at an Open Gym. One day a senior could be seen working side by side with a 4th grader and the next Sunday working with an upper classman. Some players were focused on their basketball or hockey skills, as those seasons were in full swing.
As the coaches assessed the talent of this year's Rebel softball team, it was looking like reaching the state tournament was a realistic goal based on the returning players' past performances and improvement, along with the addition of new young talent.
The Moose Lake/Willow River Rebel team has been in existence since 1984. It has been a successful cooperative venture by the two schools, and this year it appeared that it would be the perfect year. The team would be led by two senior stars. One senior player attended Willow River and one senior player attended Moose Lake. Based on the coaches' assessments, the team would be composed of the same number of players from each school. The expectations were high for this year's team.
Senior Bella Meyer is a right handed hitter from Willow River who could hit with power. Bella could best be described as a lunch pail type of player, doing whatever is necessary to get the job done. Bella had worked her way up through the years and developed into an outstanding outfielder and, when injuries forced changes, took over centerfield duties in her junior year, playing flawlessly. Even so, Bella has had to battle through a number of leg injuries, but continued to give it her all. Bella made the decision to focus entirely on softball, and spent the off season preparing for her final Rebel season.
Moose Lake senior Jamie Benzie missed her junior season due to an ACL injury. Jamie had last played softball as a sophomore, dominating the competition in the playoffs with her lightning speed and strong hitting. Jamie is a left handed hitter who could slap hit or hit with power. Jamie was the team's centerfielder who roamed centerfield like a gazelle tracking down balls that others couldn't reach. Her sophomore season ended with a controversial umpire call in a playoff game. There was disappointment, but Jamie looked forward to her junior season for a better outcome. Then there would be that fateful day in October 2018. Jamie would suffer a season ending injury while playing volleyball. She would miss the entire hockey season and softball seasons. Jamie worked hard with her rehab and progressed to the point that she was able to participate in some track events as a junior. As she entered her senior year, Jamie chose to skip volleyball to concentrate on two of her loves, hockey and softball. Jamie would lead her hockey team to a good season. The softball coaches watching her could see that Jamie had recovered fully, and the old Jamie would be ready for softball. Her hockey season would end with a hard fought triple overtime loss in the playoffs. And then it was on to softball. Playing softball in her senior season would fill a void that was left after missing her entire junior season.
As the coach's evaluation process was taking place for this year's Rebel team, it was evident to the coaches that this team was full of old and new talent. This was confirmed even more so when All Star pitcher and catcher, Sarah Christy and Natalie Mikrot, were named as two of the top 35 underclassmen softball players in the state. The team's stable of freshmen pitchers would give the team good pitching depth, and returning starters, Sophomores Janna Bode and Gabby Gamst, would add to the team's hitting strength. The exciting "Littles" were a year older, and the addition of three talented young players rounded out a strong group of players. With all the talent, there definitely would be competition for playing time this year.
The global impacts of the COVID-19 virus that began a few months earlier were beginning to impact the United States. So, as the coaches were putting together this year's team, the cloud of uncertainty was becoming darker. After the first week of practice, word came down that the schools would be temporarily closed. As with the weather, other teams, umpires or fans, Coach Kelly Goeb would remind the team that we can only control the controllable and the virus situation was one of those things we had no control over. With practice suspended, the players would be at home doing their own workouts, with still the hope that the season would take place. For the following weeks there would be glimmers of hope when news media reported that the season might not be totally lost but might be a shortened season.
Then the call was made by the Umpire Governor on April 23rd that Minnesota schools would be closed for the rest of the year. With the umpire's call, the Rebel Softball season was ended. As with all umpire calls, the Rebels always hope that it is the right call. But this isn't the first call that an umpire has made that has affected an outcome of a Rebel season, but this one call was so much more impactful.
In the scheme of life or death, a softball season might seem insignificant. But, as with many things in life, we must face the fact that we don't control the uncontrollable. And high school seniors will have undoubtedly paid a higher price for the safety of others.
For Seniors Jamie Benzie and Bella Meyer, it is a season of unfulfilled dreams, expectations and a lost season. A championship run toward the state championship can only be put in the "What if?" category. There wouldn't be interactions with players they knew from other teams, who they have competed against over the years. There wouldn't be a prom weekend and hearing the story again from their coaches that "back in the day" the team would play a tournament on the day of prom. There won't be the long bus rides to Cook County or a tournament weekend at Zumbrota. There wouldn't be the anticipation of victories on the road or at home against their talented rival teams. There wouldn't be the sectional celebration of stopping at Zorba's for a celebration meal by, or in, the lake. There wouldn't be a team picture day or even a team picture. There isn't going to be a farewell to the underclassmen after the final game or a state trip to Mankato.
For the Underclassmen, they have lost a year of development of their softball skills. They will have missed the opportunity to play with seniors they have respected and enjoyed playing with. They will have learned that next year sometimes doesn't happen. One of the unanswered questions is how will they respond to the lost season.
Seniors Jamie Benzie and Bella Meyer overcame physical challenges in order to play softball in 2020. Circumstances out of their control are forcing them to face disappointment and begin a new challenge. One thing for certain is that they have the character and drive to take on the disappointment and challenge of a lost season and move successfully onto the next stage of their life.
A potential perfect season is no longer a possibility and the team is left with the question, what could have been? The disappointments for two seniors will also have been played out hundreds of times by other seniors throughout the state and country. 2020 will always be remembered for being the lost season. So when the umpire once again calls out "Play Ball," the Moose Lake Rebel team will remember the sacrifice their two senior leaders made and will be ready to play like it could be the last season we play.