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East Metro Softball Player of the Year: Forest Lake’s Hannah Tong

The 2020 high school softball season was wiped out by COVID-19 before it ever really got off the ground. But Forest Lake held tryouts before anyone knew of the chaos that was to come, and eighth-grader Hannah Tong stepped into the circle, hoping to make the Rangers’ varsity staff.

She did not.

Tong was assigned to the freshman team and was told it may be a bit before she joined the varsity ranks.

“That really fired me up to push myself,” Tong said. “And I came back my ninth-grade year and made varsity, which was a big accomplishment for me.”

Since she was little, Tong’s mom always told her to turn angry emotions into positive energy. You’ll be better off in life if you view things in a positive light.

The message proved true back then, and it’s still doing so today.

A warrior in the circle who’s dominant at the dish, Tong is the 2024 East Metro Softball Player of the Year.

The senior hurler is 15-3 in the circle for the Rangers, who enter the Class 4A state tournament Wednesday in North Mankato with the No. 2 seed. They’ll take on unseeded Eden Prairie at 10 a.m. at Caswell Park. Forest Lake is in pursuit of its fourth straight state championship game appearance. In each of Tong’s three previous varsity seasons, she has pitched in the state title game.

And this is the best version of herself to date in many ways.

The most obvious is at the plate. Tong didn’t hit much as a freshman at Forest Lake, which was no surprise to her. She didn’t hit much at lower levels, either. It was never her strength.

“I was like, ‘OK, that’s nothing really new,’ ” Tong said.

But she continued to work at it, and noted “something must’ve clicked” between her freshman and sophomore campaigns.

“I did not expect that,” she said. “It really did come out of left field.”

And, as a senior, Tong has posted what Forest Lake coach Sean Hall called “the best hitting stats of any player I’ve ever coached.”

Tong is hitting .538 this season. Of her 35 hits, six are doubles and seven are home runs. She has knocked in 38 runs – a testament to her and those around her in the lineup. Tong credited Forest Lake hitting coach Mike Perry and the plan he has helped her develop at the dish. Knowing what she hopes to accomplish has allowed Tong to relax and confidently rely on her mechanics to naturally take over.

“She’s not getting herself out. She’s able to lay off the chase pitches and recognize them a little bit earlier, which in turn helps her get a better pitch to hit,” Hall said. “She’s become so much of a more disciplined hitter that your average can jump a lot, and you can do a lot of great things.”

In the circle, Tong has developed what Forest Lake pitching coach Mark Bayers called a “deadly” off-speed pitch – “the best changeup in the state” – which keeps hitters off balance. That’s a major weapon when Tong can also hang around 63 miles per hour on the radar gun.

It’s a pitch Tong now heavily relies on, but not one she was confident in three years ago.

“When I was a freshman, it really struggled. Mark definitely forced me to throw it a lot,” Tong said. “I went back to my pitching coach in the winter and said, ‘It’s still not good. I need to work on it more.’”

The development of that pitch has made Tong’s life in the circle “so much easier.”

“Because I can keep (hitters) off balance. They never know when it’s going to come. And even if it does come, and they know it’s coming, a lot of the times, they aren’t expecting how slow it’s going to be,” Tong said. “So it really helps in my favor and helps my team a lot more, too.”

And yet none of that is what Tong first mentions when asked about her development during her high school career. What is?

“I feel like emotionally I’ve grown a lot,” Tong said.

That’s backed up by the comments of everyone around her.

“Just her growth as a person is one thing I think I’m really excited to see,” Hall said. “She has always been a fiery competitor, which makes her a great player. I think the greatest part about this year and how Hannah’s matured is she’s just a great leader all the way, whether things are going well or whether we’re struggling,. She always is able to keep an even keel.”

Now, if she delivers a massive strikeout, you can bet she’s going to knock out the air in front of her with a quick punch. But when things aren’t going well, Tong refuses to waver.

“You need to stay emotionally stable – no tears, no getting upset,” Tong said. “Body language is also a very, very big thing when it comes to being successful, especially at such a high level that we play at here at Forest Lake.”

Tong has had to carry the biggest burden for Forest Lake this season. In the past, she has been one half of a powerful one-two punch along with Avery Muellner. But injury has kept Muellner out of the circle this season.

And while the Rangers have other capable arms who have done well, the big moments have belonged to Tong. It hasn’t always been awesome. Early season outings in which she was hit heavily by White Bear Lake and Cretin-Derham Hall stuck with her.

But in her second go-around against the Bears, Tong silenced the White Bear Lake bats in a 16-0 Rangers victory. Tong said that was one of her proudest moments.

“Because I wasn’t the greatest the first time, and they came in thinking I was going to pitch the exact same,” Tong said. “I really didn’t, and it really just shows that one mistake doesn’t define me as a pitcher. And that just makes me proud, because that’s really been my motto.”

Bayers noted sports are filled with ebbs and flows. Very rarely will everything work in your favor. Tong, he noted, is “very good at stopping a train before it goes too far south and redirecting it.”

“Because she’s been there, and she knows it’s not a big deal. Simmer down, relax,” Bayers said. “She’s really good at that.”

That’s especially valuable this week at state, just down the road from where Tong will pitch in college at Minnesota State Mankato. But first, she’ll aim to reach a fourth state championship game, and win a second state title. That’s maybe not something Tong thought was possible at the season’s outset.

But she pushed her teammates to be the best they could all season, just as she does herself. Forest Lake relied on its work, its experience and its ace to get back into a familiar position.

Tong and her senior teammates will graduate Thursday evening. She noted she’s not entirely sure what the last few days of school look like at Forest Lake – she has always spent them in North Mankato.

But she is quite familiar with the state championship game environment, and she’d like to taste that one more time on her way out the door.

“Honestly, it would mean the world,” Tong said of a title. “Deep down, I feel like we could do it, but we have to work hard. It would really end off my senior year very well.”

The Rangers have one major advantage working in their favor this week.

“I wouldn’t pick another pitcher in the state tournament,” Bayers said. “I think she’s the best.”

FINALISTS

Heidi Barber, senior shortstop, White Bear Lake: Connecticut commit hit .492 for the Bears.

Cece Hanson, senior center fielder, Rosemount: Elite in the field and at the plate, South Dakota State commit has defending champs back in title position.

Brooke Nesdahl, junior pitcher, Cretin-Derham Hall: Struck out nearly 200 batters while tallying 17 extra-base hits for the top seed in the Class 3A tournament.

Ariana Princl, senior shortstop, Rosemount: Creighton commit is golden with the glove and has 39 runs batted in for Class 4A’s top tournament seed.

Maya Schroeder, junior centerfielder, Stillwater: Ignited the powerful Ponies to state with her .532 average, 17-extra base hits and 17 stolen bases.

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