Alexandria sophomore pitcher Taylor Ellingson admitted her focus is a little sharper every time she pitches against Brainerd.
That’s because she knows she needs to be sharp if her team is going to have a chance against one of top pitchers in the state. The Warriors’ Nikki Anderson has been shutting down Central Lakes Conference opponents for years, and she has Brainerd off to a 12-1 start and a 9-0 mark in league play in her senior season.
Anderson will be playing her softball at the University of Minnesota next year. On Thursday, Ellingson matched her pitch-for-pitch for most of the night in a game that ended with Alexandria losing 2-1.
“I try to stay focused [against Brainerd] a lot,” Ellingson said. “I kept positive because I knew we were all playing with them, and I could pitch to them and they wouldn’t hit it…usually my changeup doesn’t work, but it was working today way better than it has before.”
Ellingson found a way to make big pitches when she needed them against a Warriors’ lineup that is averaging 8.2 runs per game this season. Brainerd led 1-0 after three innings but stranded six runners on base through the early innings.
Alexandria tied it in the fourth after Lauren Trumm led off with a triple and was brought home on a liner off the bat of Sarah Bruzek. That 1-1 score is how the two teams went late into the game as Ellingson worked 1-2-3 frames in both the fourth and fifth innings.
Ellingson found herself in trouble in the top of the sixth. A leadoff triple by Hannah Kangas followed by a hit batter set the Warriors up with runners on the corners and nobody out.
Cards’ catcher Lauren Trumm gave Alexandria a big boost when she threw out the runner trying to steal second. Most catchers won’t even make that throw with the go-ahead run on third, but Trumm threw a dart to record the first out of the inning.
That seemed to provide Ellingson with a boost of confidence. She struck out the next batter she faced before inducing a lazy fly ball to center field where Amanda Christianson recorded the final out of the inning to keep things at one apiece. Ellingson finished the night with five hits allowed and seven strikeouts.
“She’s a competitor,” head coach Randy Albers said. “A lot of it for her is just the mental part of the game and getting through those situations. She’s pretty even keel, and she handles it very well.”
Brainerd finally got to her for what turned out to be the winning run in the top of the seventh. Bailey O’Hotto beat out an infield single before a bunt base hit and a walk loaded the bases with one out. Anderson came to the plate with a chance to help herself out, and she did so by coaxing a walk that drove in the go-ahead run.
The Cardinals threatened in their half of the seventh inning. Emily Kuennen led off with a single and stole second with nobody out. Rachel Peterson followed with a sharp single to right two batters later. Kuennen had to hold up near second base to make sure the ball got down, which only allowed her to advance one bag on the play.
Anderson showed her ability to get out of jams over the next two batters. She pounded Mikayla Lucas with fastballs early in the count before dropping a changeup on her to get a swinging strikeout. Anderson used the same strategy against Dani Carlson in the next at-bat, getting the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter to swing through a changeup to end it with runners on second and third.
“She made two outstanding pitches, changeups, to get two hitters that we want up,” Albers said. “Mikayla Lucas, she’s our nine hitter but on many teams she’s probably a five, three to four to five hitter. We just stick her there because she seems to get up a lot in those situations. And Dani is going to put the ball in play, but sometimes you just get overpowered. Those were two great pitches.”
Albers said he can count on one hand the number of times she has thrown that pitch against the Cardinals in the past. Anderson needed an off-speed pitch to go with a powerful fastball at the next level. She has developed it enough to the point where she felt comfortable going to it in the game’s biggest situations last night.
“That just puts her at another level yet completely,” Albers said. “She’s going to have to have a pitch like that in college, and that’s a good one.”
It’s possible last night might have been the last time Alexandria will ever face Anderson. The next time these two teams would meet would have to come in the Section 8AAA playoffs.
The Cardinals would welcome that opportunity. They proved that they can play with the Warriors if Ellingson is on her game like she was last night, and if nothing else, they aren’t afraid of Anderson on the mound anymore.
“I don’t think we’re intimidated by her anymore and we have to be at that point,” Albers said. “Hopefully we can hook up with them again at sections. The girls are at a level where you see a quality pitcher like that enough, you’re going to get better offensively, and they’ve seen Taylor too so the same thing can be said about them.
“Taylor takes it kind of personally. I pump up Nikki all week and how good she is, what a tough pitcher she is. I think Taylor really takes that as a challenge. She too wants to be the best, and she did everything that we could have asked her to today.”