DE PERE - The last two seasons Oconto Falls has been one of the best Division 2 softball teams in the state because when you have a lights-out pitcher, it usually means lights out for the opponent.
Now a junior, McKenna Larsen hopes to continue to keep opposing offenses in the dark but as she found out Tuesday, with the tough start to the spring season with inclement weather it may take some time to get up to speed.
Larsen won three games in less than 24 hours to start the season but after Monday's 2-0 season-opening win over Seymour, West De Pere showed the ability to hit Larsen.
Falls swept West De Pere in a Bay Conference doubleheader, 8-1 and 8-5, but in the process West De Pere collected 14 hits and six earned runs on the usually stingy left-hander.
"Monday was the first time I pitched outside this year," Larsen said. "It's going to be tough, but just work through it. (I'll have) two days off, so hopefully rest and build and get stronger for each game."
Larsen's coach and mother, Dawn, said she would like to monitor McKenna's pitching this season to keep her fresh for the postseason, which starts May 16. However, Tuesday the competitive juices kicked in and despite having Erin Gilligan warming up multiple times in Game 2, Larsen went the distance.
"With a season like this, I promised myself I wouldn't overthrow McKenna, but look what happened," Dawn Larsen said. "The other girls came through and she really appreciates that."
What Dawn Larsen wrestled with was pulling an ace like her daughter in Game 2 and risking losing a conference game.
"They are such a great-hitting team, they really are," Dawn Larsen said of West De Pere. "It is tough. I know McKenna was tired. What do you do? It puts the coaches in a tough predicament.
"Do you go for the win? (Gilligan) hasn't pitched since probably sixth, seventh grade. We thought maybe we'd have (McKenna) go the first inning or two. It shows what she's made of; same thing with their pitcher (Amber Van Duyse). They were in the same boat."
Both Larsen and Van Duyse pitched 21 innings in two days, but Tuesday was extra tough because it was a doubleheader with the temperature at 42 degreesand a wind that never stopped.
Maybe that's why Larsen's fastball never topped 56 miles per hour.
"It's hard on everything," McKenna Larsen said on what it's like pitching in Tuesday's conditions. "I think the wind it was the most crucial factor. You just have to have mental toughness."
Larsen said no matter the conditions, she expects herself and her team to perform at the high level they have the last two seasons, including 2011, when the Panthers made the state tournament.
"The expectations are high; I hold myself to high standards," she said. "I just have to keep improving and helping the team out."
Falls expects to be in the conference chase, but it won't be easy to win the league. The Bay once again has some strong programs and McKenna Larsen knows it.
"This conference is tough; West De Pere is tough, Hortonville, New London, Seymour," Larsen said. "You just have to get ready for the postseason since the season is so short."
As the weather warms up, expect Larsen to do the same.
"She's not at top form yet, which is to be expected," Dawn Larsen said. "I'm just so proud of the girls around her who hit the ball."
Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay
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