Farmington honors its champions

Softball team celebrates state title at reception

Farmington captains Caitie Dully (left), Maddie Muelken and Emily Berdan addressed the audience at last week’s event honoring the Tigers’ state championship softball team. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

Farmington players, coaches and fans gathered on a field in North Mankato on June 10 to celebrate one of the shining moments in the high school’s athletic history – a state championship, the school’s first in a Minnesota State High School League-sponsored event.

There was just one problem. An accomplishment such as that deserved an appropriate welcome-home ceremony. The team hustled back to Farmington quickly enough, but it was so its seniors could attend their graduation. School was out, and families were busy planning their summers.

The history-making Tigers team got its welcome-home ceremony last week at the high school’s recital hall. Team members were introduced at the July 25 events, after which they signed posters for the children and well-wishers in attendance.

“We’ll remember who we shared this journey with, and it was each other,” said pitcher Maddie Muelken, one of three senior captains. Muelken pitched back-to-back shutouts in the final two rounds of the state Class 4A tournament against the top two seeds, Chanhassen and Anoka. The Tigers defeated Anoka 1-0 in the championship game on Emma Frost’s walk-off home run.

On their way to the championship, the Tigers (24-3) finished second in the South Suburban, possibly the state’s strongest conference, and set aside bad playoff memories against New Prague. In 2016, two one-run losses to New Prague in the Section 1 tournament kept Farmington out of state. In 2017 the Tigers went 4-0 in the section, with the last two victories one-run games against New Prague.

They overcame several obstacles, most notably a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis for Muelken just before the season started. She came back to pitch in most of the Tigers’ regular-season games and all their playoff games.

“We knew every game and every day was going to be a tough battle,” said senior captain Emily Berdan, the Tigers’ catcher.

Coaches and Farmington natives Paul Harrington and Randy Schmitz helped steer the Tigers to the championship. When hip replacement surgery kept Schmitz out of the first base coach’s box early in the season, in stepped Farmington teacher Courtney Macko, who coached Eagan to the state large-school championship in 2008.

“The only credit I can take is I won the coin flip and we were the home team” for the state final, said Harrington, who has led Farmington to four state tournament appearances in six seasons.

The Tigers graduated only three seniors, but all were significant pieces to the championship puzzle – the battery of Muelken and Berdan, and starting infielder Caitie Dully.

Players such as Frost and Tigers shortstop Olivia Hazelbaker return next season as the Tigers take on a new challenge. They’ll go from trying to prove they belong with the state’s elite teams to being a team to beat, Harrington noted.