Paul Harrington has participated in plenty of state softball tournaments since graduating from Farmington High School in 1974.
He was a player-coach for Farmington's men's fast-pitch teams that placed in the top two at the state tournament eight times from 1977 to 2001. He got into high school coaching in the mid-90s and went on to guide the Totino-Grace program to five state tournament appearances in 11 seasons.
Now, Harrington is taking his alma mater to state. Less than six months after he took over, the veteran coach looked on from the first- base dugout as the Missota Conference co-champions set Rochester John Marshall down in order in the seventh inning of last Thursday's Section 1AAA championship game to seal their second-ever state tournament appearance.
The second-seeded Tigers buzzed through the section field with four straight wins, capped off by a 5-1 clincher over the Rockets at Todd Park in Austin.
Talking about a conference co-championship, a section title and a state tournament appearance would have seemed a bit optimistic when practice got under way in mid-March at Boeckman Middle School, but even then Harrington said he could see some of the ingredients to a winning team.
"Looking around I didn't know the girls but I started counting heads," he said. "As far as talent, I could get up to 10, 11, 12 kids, so I knew we had some good talent to work with, I just didn't know where they fit in, I didn't know their names, didn't know anything, but at least I saw 12 kids that could throw the ball, hit the ball, field the ball so I knew we would have a good nucleus, it just took time to figure it all out."
Helping the Tigers get through any of their early-season bumps in the road was pitcher Ashley Betzold. The junior provided varsity experience in the center of the diamond and a solid bat in the No. 3 spot in the order, and those things didn't change in the section championship game. Betzold tossed a three-hitter, struck out five in a complete-game effort and went 3 for 4 at the plate with two doubles and a solo home run that made it 5-0 in the top of the sixth.
"She's won every game for us and lost every game for us. She's our pitcher; we live or die with her. She's kind of in a good groove right now at the right time," Harrington said. "She had a couple tough games in the middle of the year and we got through that. She's really stepping up when it's time to step up."
After Betzold's first double with two outs in the first, senior captain Allie Rice launched a two-run home run to right-center to make it 2-0 Tigers. The score stayed that way until the fifth when Amber Doyle, Betzold, Rice and Toni Hunsinger strung together four straight hits to plate two more runs. The Rockets (18-5) got the next three batters in order to strand the bases loaded.
The Tigers, who scored 25 runs in their first three tournament games, also stranded a pair of runners in the second and third innings.
"Get some key hits and we might get nine or 10 runs today," Harrington said. "We left a lot of people on base. It's all come with timely hitting and Allie set the pace right away in the first inning and smacked it over the fence."
The Tigers take a 17-4 record into their Class 3A state tournament opener today against Section 4 champion Stillwater (18-8).
"We want to play well. There are eight great teams there and whatever happens, happens," Harrington said. "We're in it to win it. We just have to play great defense and get timely hits."