NORTH MANKATO, Minn. — Forest Lake knows how good Chloe Barber is in the circle for White Bear Lake.
The Bears’ pitching ace no-hit the Rangers the first time the teams met this season. In the second game between the two teams, the junior allowed just six hits and two earned runs. Both performances resulted in White Bear Lake victories.
Forest Lake coach Sean Hall said Barber is “probably one of the best pitchers we’ve had in Minnesota in the last 10 years.” And, when you face that type of talent, Hall said you have to “roll the dice.”
Forest Lake certainly took some gambles in Thursday’s Class 4A state tournament semifinal at Caswell Park, and enough paid off for the Rangers to edge top-seeded White Bear Lake 3-2 to advance to their second straight state final.
The fourth-seeded Rangers (21-5) will face second-seeded Brainerd in Friday’s state final at 1 p.m. back in North Mankato. Brainerd topped East Ridge 4-3 in Friday’s quarterfinals, then beat Hopkins 5-2 in the semis.
“You know you have to take chances and you can’t play scared,” Hall said of the upset of White Bear Lake. “We tried to put the pressure on every chance we got.”
That started in the first inning, when Bethany Weiss walked to lead off the game. Sami Ernst courtesy ran for the catcher and stole second base. She moved to third on a sacrifice bunt and then scored on a fielder’s choice to give Forest Lake a 1-0 lead.
No hits, one run.
Then in the fifth inning, Forest Lake scored twice on the strength of a bloop single, a hit by pitch, a walk, a wild pitch and an RBI groundout.
One hit, two runs.
In total, the Rangers scored their three runs on the strength of four hits, because they were constantly pushing aggressively on the base paths.
The gamble didn’t pay off in the third inning, when the inning ended in a runner being thrown out at third base, but it was that aggressiveness that ruled the day for Forest Lake.
Weiss said Hall “definitely” likes to coach in those types of games.
“He likes to play his little tricks,” she said with a smile.
They paid off in a game that only featured eight hits between the two teams but had plenty of activity on the base paths thanks to a small strike zone that led to a total of 13 walks.
White Bear Lake coach Kaity Wightman said it took her team a little bit to adapt to that, but trailing 3-0 in the fifth, the Bears (22-4) found their stride.
Jordyn Meyer delivered a bases-loaded single to plate White Bear Lake’s two runs for the day.
Later in the inning, with the bases loaded again, Hall swapped out starting pitcher Avery Muellner — who was great for four-plus innings — for Hannah Tong.
That’s pressure at its peak. The Forest Lake sophomore admitted she felt a bit of nerves, but thought back to past performances in which White Bear Lake got the best of her, and decided it was her moment to prove herself.
Tong induced a foul out to end the inning.
Tong and Muellner are both aces for the Rangers, and Hall has full faith going to either in any situation. Tong threw scoreless sixth and seventh innings to shut the door on White Bear Lake.
“She did a fantastic job,” Hall said. “Take pride in that, being able to be there for your teammates. That’s my favorite part.”
Forest Lake pitched around Barber. She reached base safely in all four trips to the plate via three walks and a hit by pitch. Wightman said with one more inning, perhaps the Bears could have broken through. They just found their groove a little too late. Still, the defeat does little to dampen a season that included a Suburban East Conference championship and the first trip to state since 2002.
“It’s been an amazing year, and girls aren’t going to see it right now or tonight,” Wightman said, “but they know it’s been a special season.”
Both of Forest Lake’s wins Thursday — in the quarterfinals over Centennial, then over White Bear Lake — avenged regular-season defeats. Hall noted his team has had pressure all season to get back to this point — the state title game, where it lost to Rosemount last spring.
Now, the Rangers are back.
“They just have dialed it up when it matters most. And they’re playing loose, which is really, really important down here. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Hall said. “Our experience of being down here last year was, ‘You know what, you can’t play scared.’ ”
“It’s a different team, new season, new everything,” Weiss said. “So I’m excited to see how it all unfolds (Friday).”