Aug. 5—ROCHESTER — Anna Bamlet and her Hayfield High School softball team may not have won the Class A state title this spring, but the team still found a way to become a state champion this year.
Bamlet and the Hayfield Legion Post 330 team became the first American Legion softball state champion on Sunday, July 31, 2022, beating Browerville 9-6 in Mankato in the first championship game in Minnesota Legion softball history.
"It was so awesome, honestly," said Bamlet, who graduated this spring. "That's probably not the best way to say it, but to have this opportunity to have one last go at things ... It's awesome to win. Everyone was able to contribute and help us make that goal of a state title a reality."
This spring, Hayfield had one goal in mind: make it to Mankato to play in the state high school softball tournament. The No. 1-ranked team in Section 1A West didn't quite reach that goal, winning two games but losing to Faribault Bethlehem Academy in the section playoffs.
There was a silver lining, though: Hayfield's athletes were able to play together this summer on a Legion team, building on the success, camaraderie and chemistry they developed throughout the spring.
American Legion baseball is an institution in Minnesota, an operation that's churned out competitive summer baseball for almost 100 years. But Legion posts didn't sponsor summer softball until this year, which is also the 50th anniversary of Title IX, as board chairman Michael Arvidson pointed out.
Two years ago, Arvidson's daughter asked her father why there was no Legion softball. Arvidson had just started serving on the board of Legion baseball and felt like he was in a position to make Legion softball a reality.
Last Sunday, his daughter celebrated her 14th birthday on the softball field in Mankato, watching the first Legion softball state tournament in Minnesota. The Hayfield team invited the Arvidsons into the team picture following the championship game.
"It was kind of surreal," Arvidson said. "It's gratifying to see all the hard work and this persistence of getting after it and trying to execute a program. It was nice."
Hayfield coach Craig Selk couldn't find the words to describe what the Legion experience and state title mean to him and his team. It's a new level of success that Selk and the team haven't fully grasped yet.
"You start thinking about the history and our name being first," Selk said. "Fifty years from now, our name is going to be the first one, and generally that's what everyone is going to come back to when you look at the archives of American Legion fastpitch."
Jo Tempel, the tournament's Outstanding Player award winner, agreed that being the first Legion state champion hasn't fully set in yet.
"You're not the first in anything very often, but to be the first ever in Legion softball to win a title is super special," she said. "It doesn't even feel real yet."
Bamlet said she knew that playing with her team would be special. She believed in Hayfield so much so that she split her time between Legion and her travel team, the Minnesota Stix.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said, "and it was worth every second. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way."
Bamlet, who is committed to play college softball at Coe College in Iowa, had another motivation to play Legion softball: She wanted to have the opportunity to represent her community and Post 330, "who do so much for everybody," Bamlet said.
It's safe to say Hayfield fully embraced the title and the team that won it.
The team got a champions welcome home, complete with riding on top of fire trucks to streets lined with people.
"Based on the last two years of athletics, our boys (teams) have really set the bar high, with winning two basketball championships, a baseball championship and then, this spring, finishing second, losing in the title game," Selk said. "So this, in particular, was very meaningful for our female athletes. This is the start of something that's going to be great for all of our female athletes."
Bamlet saw that community recognition for the Hayfield boys teams. She wanted that experience, too.
"To finally see that change over into the girls' sports was huge, not only for me and the community, but for all those younger girls that maybe just saw it as a boys thing," she said.
Tempel, for one, thinks that bringing the title home will help Hayfield build a Legion softball team that the community can be proud of, year after year.
"It'll make girls super excited to finally be able to play for their home team, to represent their community," she said. "There's always been travel ball teams that you'd have to go to Rochester, or I played in Mankato. I think girls will be super excited that they get to play with their schools."
The first iteration of any league or event won't be perfect, but, in Selk's eyes, the championship game came pretty close.
"It was absolutely amazing," he said. "We knew it was going to be really organized, well laid out. But, once we got there, it was, I mean it far exceeded everyone's expectations. It was an amazing, great experience."
In general, that could sum up the first summer of Legion softball — the summer went pretty well, considering teams found out in March that the league was ready to go.
Arvidson said Minnesota had the most teams participate in the first year compared to other states, and he anticipates more teams to sign up for next summer.
There were still bumps in the road. Because of the short timeline to get teams up and running, some teams struggled to field enough players for games. Basketball camps, volleyball leagues, travel softball, vacations and church trips all put a wrinkle into scheduling consistent games.
"It just worked differently everywhere. And that's the tricky part," Arvidson said. "You have to be flexible. You couldn't put one universal stamp on it, and say, 'OK, we're going to play on Tuesdays statewide because different areas of the state play different nights of the week for all those other sports, and you're trying to piece together the big puzzle."
Selk doesn't anticipate scheduling to become a long-term issue.
"Now that I know how this works, and with Southland and Triton and Rochester and La Crescent — our team for District 1 — we now all understand how this works," he said. "So I'm hoping and I'm going to bet that next year it will be a really smooth transition going from spring into summer ball."
And, in Selk's opinion, teams would be "crazy" not to participate in Legion softball.
"Especially the small schools in this area. It's perfect," he said. "Instead of farming them off — you're going to play 12U, you're going to play 14U — our kids were just never playing together. For us, this was the absolute perfect setup.
"It was almost like it was made for small schools within Minnesota. It's the perfect setting. It's the perfect venue."