By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
DENMARK – It had been long enough that no one was entirely certain when Denmark had last captured a conference softball championship.
Someone mentioned 27 years but that couldn’t be confirmed.
Let’s just say it was a long time ago. Whatever the length of that title drought it is now over following the Vikings’ 15-1 rout at Fox Valley Lutheran on Tuesday afternoon in Appleton that concluded a 16-2 North Eastern Conference record and a first-place finish over Luxemburg-Casco.
It was the latest in a series of late-season shellackings dished out by the Vikings. Over the course of their seven-game winning streak that carried them to the title, they outscored their opponents 98-13.
“This season has been pretty good,” said hot-hitting shortstop Sophia Kinjerski, employing next-level understatement. “I know losing nine seniors no one was thinking too highly of us so to be able to get the conference championship is something. Especially with the new gym, it will be nice to get the first plaque up there.”
Denmark lost four First Team and one Second Team all-conference players to graduation from a team that won both a regional and a sectional title. Despite returning some top-notch players, there were so many holes to fill that no one was too certain what to expect.
“Yes and no,” said head coach Mike Vakselis. “We knew we had the talent, but we knew it was going to be a work in progress and that we would have to see development throughout the season. Winning the conference was a goal for us and to accomplish that is pretty awesome.”
The 2019 Vikings are anchored by Kinjerski and third-year pitcher Grace Nys, as well as by returning second baseman Alayna Derricks. Nys improved to 13-1 with a two-hit, nine-strikeout performance in the five-inning affair on Tuesday.
“She’s definitely more consistent this year,” Vakselis said. “Her velocity and strikeouts are up, and her walks are down. She’s giving up fewer hits per inning. But that’s what you expect from your leaders. She’s a huge part of our success.”
Denmark escaped with a 1-0 win over the Foxes on April 23 but didn’t have to face ace Sydney Birling on Tuesday and that made all the difference. The Vikings are on a tear and even though they failed to score in the first, three hard outs gave a preview of what awaited. Denmark put up four runs in the second, with Hailey Aschenbrenner stroking a two-run single, Abby Maricque bringing home another with a fielder’s choice and Kinjerski adding a sacrifice fly. Kinjerski, who came in leading the league with a .522 average, also added to her league-leading RBI totals by driving in three more and finished the regular season with 27 in league play. No one was even close to her in either category.
“She’s awesome,” Vakselis said. “She’s been so good for us, so consistent with her approach. She’s very solid offensively and defensively and is the most vocal kid on our team. She’s kind of our lifeblood. We’re extremely lucky to have her.”
Denmark added four more runs in the third, all after the first two batters were retired. Phoebe Jensen, who became a starter midway through the season and has provided even more punch to an already loaded lineup, tripled and scored along with pinch runner Lexi Penovich on Maricque’s solid two-run single. Maricque went to third on Kinjerski’s run-scoring single and stole home to make it 8-0.
The Denmark fifth was vintage Vikings. The first five reached on solid singles and Kate O’Brien and Jensen followed with two-run doubles as Denmark plated seven.
“We’re kind of like an ocean wave,” Vakselis said. “We keep coming and coming and coming. We might not score every inning, but we have the hitters where we’re confident we are going to get to teams.”
Maricque, Kinjerski, Kailyn Petitjean, O’Brien and Jensen each had two of Denmark’s 14 hits. In addition to Kinjerski’s three RBI, Maricque, O’Brien, Jensen and Aschenbrenner each drove in two.
“Kudos to our coaches,” Kinjerski said of the transition from last season to this one. “Coming from a lot of home-run hitters last year to a lot of speed this year, they really made the adjustment. They made it work and put our best players where they need to be.”
Denmark (22-3 overall) opens as the two seed behind Seymour as regional play gets under way this week and next. Sectionals are May 28 and 30. State begins June 6.