Tears filled the eyes of Chanhassen senior softball players on March 15, the day the NCAA announced the cancellation of spring collegiate athletics across the country.
"Dear (Minnesota State High School League), please don't take away our season. Sincerely, Seniors who just want to play together again."
Two months later, on a day in which the Section 2-4A softball tournament would have played its second round of games, Storm seniors Haley Ellefson, Julia Gronholz, Kenzie Miller, and Tori Tollefson fought off tears again.
Thinking about what might have been in 2020. Thinking about all of the memories from a decade of playing softball together. Thinking about softball being over for one of the seniors. All brought out a range of emotions.
"It was unimaginable at first that the season was going to be taken away," Ellefson said.
"We thought there would at least be sections and state," Gronholz said. "Me and Kenzie had a hitting lesson the day it was announced and a couple of coaches came up to us and asked if we were okay. It was a tough day."
"Not being able to play with these girls again was the thing that hit the hardest," Miller said.
"I think back to our last game in 10U and I was telling the girls 'I love you,' and it's still the same," Ellefson said.
When looking back at the past four seasons, from 2016 to 2019, Chanhassen compiled an 86-13 record. Tollefson, a starter since eighth grade, a state championship season, played in 98 of those 99 games.
Miller entered play 80 times, Ellefson 49 times, Gronholz 43 times. A core nucleus for Chanhassen along with sophomore pitcher Sydney Schwartz that was expected to be among the contenders for the state title once again this spring.
"Ever since we lost last year at sections, we talked about going off our senior year. We were really focused, ready to go," Miller said.
"We talked all the time in the office about this season, about this team. What we were going to do together," Ellefson said.
"This was our year to lead, our year to bring the championship back," Tollefson said.
"Being on that team that won state, I saw it. I saw what it took to be that great. And I saw that in our team," Miller added.
ONE SPECIAL GROUP
Paul Gronholz, father and youth coach to many of the Storm's top players, admitted a few tears were shed when the season was cancelled for his oldest daughter, Julia. It was a group of players he witnessed do so much together.
"As the 12U season began, the coaches knew we were going to have a special team. Plus or minus a couple of girls and coaches, this group had already played together for three to four years. They knew each other, they were all friends on and off the field, and man were they athletic; a lot of them were multi-sport athletes," Gronholz said. "They really bought into the practice structure we set up and the repetitiveness of the drills to build fundamentals. I can remember numerous coaches coming up to me and asking what we did that the girls hit as well as they did. Up and down the lineup we could hit and we spent a lot of time in practice doing hitting drills."
NAFA Northern National runners-up in 2013 at 10U, many of those same players won state at 12U in 2015, reaching the top four teams in the top division at the NAFA tournament later that summer. They were among the best of the best in the Upper Midwest.
"Before the season began we had a meeting to decide if the girls wanted to tryout for the ninth grade team or keep the team together, practice, and do some early season tournaments in April and May. The girls wanted to play together and we opted to play a couple of tournaments in Iowa to get ready for our season up here," Gronholz said.
From that team, in addition to Miller, Tollefson, Gronholz, Ellefson, and Schwartz, were current Chanhassen Storm players Bella Plath, Daisy Lang and Anna Kelly. Allie Jansen ended up at Holy Family Catholic, a starter since ninth grade, while Lindsey Moore started at Chaska for four seasons.
"What made the season so special, and memorable, was how much fun the team and families had, during games, in between games or back at the hotel. The season ended with a 55-12-2 record, lots of hardware and memories that will last a lifetime," Gronholz said. "Fast forward to their senior season at Chan with such high hopes, all but one of the six seniors will be playing softball in college. That’s how much they love the game and I couldn’t be prouder."
"Who can say they would have had eight girls from the same 12U team on their high school team together? With people moving, with people leaving the sport. This group has always had so much chemistry and I think losing this season, what we lost most was the chance to play one last time together," Tollefson said.
MORE TO PLAY
Tollefson, Chanhassen's 2020 Athena Award winner, a five-year letter-winner in both basketball and softball, knew she wanted to play at the next level early on. So it was no surprise early in her junior year when she showed her phone to Julia Gronholz, a tweet ready to be sent about a commitment to Division I South Dakota State University.
"For me it was the community the school has. Everyone in Brookings has great school spirit and they really care about their sport teams. The atmosphere is just a lot of fun to be around, much like the team and the girls. It's cliché, but when I got there, it's where I wanted to be," said Tollefson, who also picked up a tennis racket for the first time this past fall and played on the JV team.
Gronholz looked at Iowa State University, a member of a power-five conference, but in the end, one of Chanhassen's most prolific home run hitters in program history wanted to make an impact right away. She chose the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and will join former Storm slugger Jessica Bren.
"I sat down with the coach and she was the right fit for me. The team was super welcoming. Jess and I have been talking a bit, so that's nice. I just didn't want to ride the bench at a power-five school until my junior year. I want to play now," Gronholz said.
Miller, on varsity since eighth grade, said she never wants to stop learning about the game. John Tschida, head coach at the University of St. Thomas, a professor of softball, was the perfect fit to help her expand her knowledge and her skills.
"They win, they beat people, and that will be super fun to be a part of," Miller said. (Coach) Tschida knows so much about the game and that's a big thing for me. I want someone who will help me continue to grow the next four years and I'll get that with him."
For Ellefson, who grew up watching older sisters Elin and Karin on the field for Chanhassen, storming the field at Caswell Park in Mankato after the final out in 2016 as a student manager -- fanny pack and all -- this spring was going to be her last. Ellefson is headed to the University of Kansas.
HAL WITH A 2 RUN DINGER!!!! YAYAYA ILY pic.twitter.com/ox3w53IFaS— Wegotsoftballz (@wegotsoftballz) May 24, 2019
"We had tournaments down in Kansas and we always hated it. It was so hot. I really took a liking in cinematography and film and my sister's best friend goes there for that and she talked to me about it. Once I got there I loved it," said Ellefson, who now is familiar with the phrase, "Rock Chalk."
Anna Kelly, catcher/first baseman for the Storm, will also continue her softball career for four more years at St. Mary's University in Winona. Kelly hit a 3-run homer in a win over Richfield last season and was expected to play an even bigger role in 2020.
Kate Valentine, an outfielder for the Storm, scoring four runs as a junior, will join Kelly at St. Mary's and play softball next season.
STATE TOURNAMENT FUN
It Tollefson a few minutes to recall where she was when Marybeth Olson threw the final pitch in the 2016 state championship win over Buffalo.
First it was second base. Then it was catching Maddie Schwartz after the 3 1/2-hour rain delay. Then it was to third base, switching spots with Bren.
Tollefson was only one of two underclassmen in the starting line-up in the championship, then an eighth grader. One cool eighth grader who never seemed rattled by the moment.
"Surreal is the only word to describe it. Half of the time I feel like I didn't even know what was going on. I had never played high school ball and all of the other girls had played at state the year before, so they had that experience. I just tried to go out and play like I knew how," Tollefson said.
Miller and Ellefson were on the bench for the state championship win. Miller, like her older sister, Brooke, primarily were pinch runners. They were in the middle school across the street from Caswell Park with teammates during the long delay. They did anything to stay loose before returning to the field.
It was that 2016 season where the fun really came out in the Chanhassen softball program. A season later, there was a Twitter account, @WeGotSoftballz, dedicated to capturing the moment from the dugout, often times from home plate with celebrations following a home run.
It was that fun atmosphere that helped Chanhassen to play loose, win a state championship, and post much success the past four seasons.
All four players agree. The state hotel pool party in 2017 is a memory that sticks out.
"After team dinner, we're at the hotel at the pool and I'm getting dared to jump in," Gronholz said. "Tori and Haley were just jumping in with their clothes on. Kenzie and I had nice shorts on, so we didn't want to do it. People were coming out on the balconies from their rooms, holding up note pads, scoring the jumps."
"Kenzie and I go and change and jump in and I bet an hour later there were 200 people standing watching. We had coaches jumping in. Other teams were coming in after their games and jumping in their dirty uniforms," Gronholz added.
Included in those coaches was Chanhassen head coach Joe Coenen, belly flop and all, into the pool.
s/o to our freshies for starting the hotel-wide pool party.. even coenen got in on the fun!!! 🌊🌊🌊 pic.twitter.com/op9l98vJyJ— Wegotsoftballz (@wegotsoftballz) June 9, 2017
It is the memories created, not the memories lost this season, Coenen chose to focus on.
"Seniors, I don’t know where to begin. You have been learning, growing as leaders, improving your game. For some, this would be your chance to prove yourself. A culmination of many years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. This year was going to be your year, our year," he said. "For others, you have enjoyed success for many years already. But this year was special. This was your last hurrah to shine together as a senior class. Maybe even bring home another state championship!
To have it gone, just like that, isn’t fair! We were going to be so successful. There were going to be unbelievable moments, plays, games, tournaments. Each shared experience remembered forever. And then I remember, we focus on the process, the journey. And within that journey, these memorable moments are created. All is not lost. The memories matter. The relationships matter. Nothing can take those away. The bus rides. The TikToks. The braids. The lights. The parties in the dugouts. The home runs. The strikeouts. The diving catch. That shot you got. And you didn’t disappoint. Those moments. They make us smile, and cry. The game of softball, and more importantly, this team, gave those to you. They are a gift. Cherish them," Coenen added.