Muelken’s return a huge bonus for surging Tigers

Softball team remains in first in South Suburban

Maddie Muelken takes her turn at the plate during Farmington's 7-1 victory over Rosemount on Monday. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy
Maddie Muelken takes her turn at the plate during Farmington’s 7-1 victory over Rosemount on Monday. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

South Suburban Conference softball is so competitive that finishing in the upper half of the league is an achievement, Farmington coach Paul Harrington said before the season began.

The season is scheduled to reach its halfway point later this week and the Tigers are doing more than just surviving. They remained in first place after beating Rosemount 7-1 on Monday. Farmington is 5-0 in the conference and 8-1 overall.

How did this happen?

“The commitment level is higher this year. The girls’ focus during practice and during games has stepped up, and it’s incredible,” said senior captain Maddie Muelken.

Nobody on the Tigers would question Muelken’s right to talk about commitment. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in March, casting doubt as to whether she could play her senior season of high school softball. Harrington said he hoped Muelken would be able to return sometime this spring. She sat out two games before returning to the pitching circle in a 2-1 victory over Rosemount on April 12. Muelken also pitched a complete game in Monday’s victory over the Irish, holding Rosemount to six hits and out-dueling University of Tennessee recruit Gabby Sprang.

Muelken started a chemotherapy regimen about two weeks ago. She’s had four treatments already, with more to come. How many more? “We’re not sure yet,” she said following Monday’s game. “We have to wait until Friday to get the timeline for that.”

The lymphoma was described to Muelken’s family as “Stage 2,” meaning confined to the neck and upper chest. The illness was detected early and she was given a positive prognosis. Doctors recommended she stay active – including playing softball – while she underwent treatment.

Muelken said she is aware of the potential side effects of chemotherapy but hasn’t felt any of them other than some occasional nausea. “I’m feeling great,” she said. “I don’t feel like anything’s really changed.”

Muelken got plenty of run support Monday, much of it coming from shortstop Olivia Hazelbaker, who was 3-for-4 with two doubles and a home run. She drove in four runs. The Tigers jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first inning.

The Irish (4-4, 3-3) had few scoring threats against Muelken, who said she was able to throw the ball where she needed most of the time.

Gabby Sprang pitches for Rosemount during a South Suburban Conference softball game Monday against Farmington. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy
Gabby Sprang pitches for Rosemount during a South Suburban Conference softball game Monday against Farmington. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

“The outside corner really low was getting them,” she said. “They kept chasing them, so we just stuck there and kept going after it.”

Farmington has defeated Rosemount twice and Prior Lake, Eastview and Apple Valley once each in conference play. The Tigers finished second in the Mankato East tournament last weekend, defeating New Ulm 13-4 and Mankato East 8-0 before losing to Prior Lake 7-0 in the championship game. The loss to Prior Lake does not count in the South Suburban standings. Hazelbaker and catcher Emily Berdan were named to the all-tournament team.

On Thursday, Farmington is scheduled to play at Burnsville, which won the Polar Invitational in North St. Paul last weekend. The Tigers face Shakopee at home at 4:30 p.m. Friday.

Farmington’s youth fastpitch association held a fundraiser for the Muelken family on Sunday during the program’s preseason scrimmage day. She was presented with a home plate replica. A GoFundMe account set up to help with the family’s expenses has raised more than 90 percent of its goal.

The community support was one reason Muelken said she wanted to get back on the field as quickly as possible. The other reason is the Tigers’ potential. They returned several of the top players from a team that finished second in Class 4A, Section 1 last season, losing two one-run games to New Prague in the finals.

“The sky’s the limit for this team,” Muelken said.