PESHTIGO Thursday's Division 2 regional opener for the Oconto Falls softball team was a new beginning.After playing the regular season without the Panthers' best player, McKenna Larsen made her season debut after injuring her thumb during basketball season. Larsen's arrival was timed well as she helped the No. 5-seeded Panthers to an 11-7 win over No. 4 Peshtigo."Felt good," Larsen said. "On the bus ride here I was a little scared. To get to play one more time; to play on the field with these girls was a dream come true."Larsen, who was cleared Wednesday to play softball, had surgery on her right thumb after leading her team to the state basketball tournament and had been relegated to being a spectator all season. However, she was able to pitch in practices while injured because she is left handed.Wearing a wrap on her right thumb, Larsen allowed seven runs and scattered seven hits, but some defensive miscues didn't help in a five-run second inning. As the game wore on, her fastball, specifically her rise ball, appeared to be faster as she finished the game with eight strikeouts."I think I was getting a little stronger," said Larsen, who struck out the side in the fourth inning. "The offense gave me some breathing room."First-year coach Rochell Otto was pleased to have Larsen back in the circle."Having a chucker like McKenna is a benefit," she said. "Everybody else has to play defense. Unfortunately we lost our identity in the second inning, but at least our bats keep hitting."Larsen's return was huge, but she had help. McKenna Holman had three hits, including a two-run homer in the first inning, and Ashley Terry had three doubles and three runs scored.Otto didn't say Larsen's return ignited her team, because she talked to the team all season about being ready. Nonetheless, Larsen's presence changes the Panthers."It's a confident booster for us," Otto said. "Other teams might be thinking twice. We still have to play even if she's pitching. We have to stay sharp defensively."Larsen, who will play college softball and volleyball for Winona State (Minn.), not only changes the game as a pitcher, she can be an offensive force. She had two hits and scored three runs, so she looked like herself, even if she was a little on edge. "I was a little nervous," she said. "Each game should get better. It was the first time I was able to catch a ball. I've been pitching in practice."Falls next plays Bay Conference foe Marinette on Tuesday and the teams split their regular-season meetings. Otto thinks getting a game in with Larsen will make Tuesday's game more normal."It's gigantic, getting this first regional game under our belts; getting a game under her belt is huge," Otto said. "Maybe we can be more relaxed next round."And Larsen's just happy she has another game to play. "It was a lot of fun; wouldn't want it any other way," she said about staying alive in the postseason. "I love the game. I couldn't ask for anything more."Except another win, of course.Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay
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