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The other side of the spotlight

By DAVID HOUFEK, Special to the Star Tribune, 07/30/13, 11:48PM CDT


Reflections of a goalie, an outfielder and a pitcher who played memorable games for the ages.

Lakeville North goalie Cassie Alexander stopped Minnetonka’s Amy Petersen at the Class 2A semifinals — one of 59 saves she made that night in a losing effort.

They burst into prominence, two girls in sports that receive little attention outside their intense fan base and one boy whose team was in the losers bracket and facing elimination. With head-turning performances earlier this year, Cassie Alexander, a hockey goalie in her senior season, and Jayme Langbehn, a giddy freshman softball outfielder, drew national television exposure while Michael Herd, a junior pitcher, helped his team earn a fire truck ride through town. Since then, each has moved on, armed with the memories that have redefined them.

The unexpected: Michael Herd

As the snow melted on Minnesota baseball diamonds in late April, Herd and the rest of his Watertown-Mayer teammates practiced indoors like many schools across the state. Hope resided in a winning season, a spring of improvement and the ability to simply play outside.

The Royals touted a strong defense, a roster numbered with seniors and enough pitching to stay competitive while keeping expectations in check. They had never been to a state baseball tournament before.

“At the beginning of the season, I said ‘I don’t really see us in the postseason,’ let alone making it to state.” Herd said.

Then, his odds-defying run began in the school’s Class 2A section tournament. The team made a four-game run through the losers bracket, knocking off higher-seed teams. Herd provided the spark, pitching 22? innings with no earned runs and 14 strikeouts while allowing seven hits and four walks.

Peaking at the perfect time, Herd got the start in Watertown-Mayer’s first-ever state tournament game in St. Cloud. The matchup was Minnehaha Academy and ace pitcher John Pryor.

“I told my offense I needed one run to pull that game off,” Herd said. “Every time a ball was hit, I’d kind of cringe, but I had faith in my defense, and they came through.”

A 1-0 victory propelled Watertown-Mayer to the next day’s semifinals, where it lost to Perham. The team’s historic run earned Herd lighthearted jabs from school faculty, calls from family across the state he never knew he had and a firetruck ride through town with his teammates.

The summer has brought Legion ball, training and plenty of reminiscing to fill in the gaps, Herd has begun the task of redefining his expectations for 2014.

His final victory also signaled the true beginning of his college search, which now preferences baseball alongside academics. It also began the intensified process of getting back to work, making improvements in his game and leading a pitching staff that should return intact next season.


The marathon: Cassie Alexander

Cassie Alexander got more than she expected in an epic six-overtime girls’ hockey game that would define Lakeville North’s 2013 season.

In a rematch from 2012’s playoff loss to Minnetonka, Alexander’s Panthers battled from Friday night into the early hours of Saturday morning in the state tournament semifinals at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The senior goaltender made a record 59 saves in a heartbreaking 4-3 defeat to the eventual state champion Skippers.

The record-setting performance wasn’t just a defining moment for Alexander’s season; it also showcased moments that defied the odds.

After suffering a torn labrum and a hip impingement early in the season, Alexander pushed through the pain, including the agonizing six-overtime marathon.

“I felt it through the whole season,” Alexander said. “I was in so much pain from other things during the game, though, that it didn’t really matter.”

She had surgery two days after the postseason ended. Alexander has since returned to the ice in preparation for next year where she hopes to play at St. Olaf. Heading into her freshman year, Alexander will rely on her newly tuned mental tenacity for an edge.

“It sticks with me, it’s a big part of my game now,” Alexander said. “I can look back and think, ‘if I can go nine periods in a game of hockey, I can do anything.’?”

Besides littering the local news outlets, the game made it onto ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Alexander’s phone was filled with congratulatory messages from coaches, mayors and Minnesota house representatives.

Though the game ended in a loss, Alexander knows it’s the exposure that girls hockey received from the record-setting game that will have the lasting impact.

“It was an incredible feeling all the way around” Alexander said. “Our game wasn’t a regular game. I think it did something for the sport of girls hockey.”


The catch: Jayme Langbehn

Just the thought of it makes Jayme Langbehn drop her face in embarrassment.

Her postgame television interview after Elk River’s Class 3A state softball championship victory in North Mankato wasn’t her greatest moment. However, the freshman kept her inexperience hidden until after she had twice stolen home runs to save the game and scored the winning run in-between.

The center fielder credits her game-saving plays to her coach’s spontaneous decision to practice over-the-fence catches. Her coaches, on the other hand, credited the natural talent that allowed Langbehn to play as an eighth-grader.

Regardless, no one thought the ninth-grader would be making those plays, let alone in a state championship game.

“I just think its crazy that we got as far a we did,” Langbehn said. “Last year we didn’t even make it [to the state tournament].”

Looking back, some of Langbehn’s peers doubted she even played softball, or thought she wouldn’t be playing because of her age. When her postgame interview spread across the country and her highlights starred on “SportsCenter’s” top 10 plays, she couldn’t go a day without someone congratulating her or asking for an autograph.

“Every time I see someone, that’s all they’d mention,” said Langbehn’s mom, Esmeralda. “It’s crazy all these people that want to make sure they say something and congratulate Jayme and what she’s done.”

The life of a star hasn’t made things any easier for Langbehn, though. Not only have her own expectations risen, but her thoughts have shifted from what classes she will be taking in her second year of high school to what colleges might be watching her.

Her focus for next year is simple: get better at hitting and try to just get back to being a high school student. Getting through an interview without a teammate making her laugh wouldn’t be too bad, either.