By STUART GROSKREUTZ – Stillwater Gazette
NORTH ST. PAUL – After placing second in the Suburban East Conference each of the past two years and playing second fiddle to North St. Paul in the section tourney a year ago, the Stillwater softball team was ready for something different on Wednesday.
The Ponies avoided another runner-up disappointment in impressive fashion, knocking off White Bear Lake twice to capture the Section 4AAA championship and earn their first trip to state since 2008. Against a team it lost to in the winners bracket finals on Tuesday, Stillwater won the opener 4-1 on Wednesday and followed with a 6-3 victory in the nightcap to complete the long route to the title.
"Last year we finished second in the conference and the conference champion won the state championship and this year we finished second (in the SEC)," Stillwater coach Bob Beedle said. "Last year we were second in the section so we’ve had a couple pretty good runs, but we’ve had great teams we’re competing against so winning the section this year is pretty sweet."
Stillwater remains the only team other than North St. Paul to represent this section at state since 2003, although the Polars have competed at state seven of those 10 seasons. The last team other than the Ponies or Polars to qualify from Section 4AAA was White Bear Lake when it was coached by Beedle in 2002.
"We defeated Hill-Murray (in the regular season finale), which won the Classic Suburban and got into the section and beat North St. Paul, who was rated in the top three all year, twice," Beedle said. "So the hurdles we jumped over were real accomplishments – including White Bear Lake, which we think is a great softball group. We think we’re playing our best softball at the right time."
The Ponies will face the Section 1AAA winner in the quarterfinals of the state tournament on Thursday, June 7 at Caswell Park in North Mankato. Game time is 9 a.m. This will be the eighth state tourney appearance for Stillwater, which also qualified in 1986, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2008.
The victories held significance for Beedle, who was celebrating his 61st birthday with slightly more zeal after unwrapping the section championship. The wins were also No. 100 and 101 in his seven seasons at Stillwater.
White Bear Lake 3
Similar to the losers bracket finals when Stillwater used a six-run sixth inning to eliminate North St. Paul, the Ponies used a five-run sixth inning in the second championship game on Wednesday to secure another come-from-behind victory with their season on the line.
The Ponies fell behind 3-1 after White Bear Lake scored single runs in the first, second and fourth innings. Stillwater did break through for a run in the first as Haley Balzart drove a homer over the fence in left-center.
"That was a big run because they had scored in the first and she kind of erased that," Beedle said.
Just one of the three runs charged to Hannah Heacox was earned – as the Ponies committed four errors in the field – but she stopped the bleeding each time to keep Stillwater within range. The junior, who also threw a complete game one-hitter in the opener, allowed just one walk and four hits while striking out five.
The bats came alive for Stillwater in the sixth and the Bears never recovered. Balzart and Allison Eder-Zdechlik each singled and Natalie Gerber deposited a 1-2 pitch over the fence in left-center to turn a two-run deficit into a 4-3 lead.
"It was a big sixth inning, similar to the one against North St. Paul," Beedle said.
They Ponies weren’t finished as Heacox followed with a base hit up the middle and Sidnee Ronsberg drew a two-out walk. Emily Ramberg and Dani Wigen each followed with RBI singles for a three-run cushion before Nicole Weigman recorded the final out of the inning.
"We only struck out three times and we felt like we were making adjustments," Beedle said. "We moved around in the box and were able to take a few more pitches and were able to pick our spots. It all came together in the sixth inning."
The Ponies and Bears split during the regular season, tied for second in the SEC standings also finished with the same vote totals for section seeding. Stillwater won the coin flip to receive the No. 3 seed – and was the home team for both games as a result – and the five-game season series.
"We haven’t been ranked in the top 10 since maybe the second week of the season when we popped in there," Beedle said. "Our conference is a lot tougher than most people realize from top to bottom and I think our team got better as a result of playing the competition inside our conference this year. This is the first year we went back to a double round robin (schedule) and that paid dividends for us."
WBL1 1 0 1 0 0 0-342
St1 0 0 0 0 5 x-694
WP: Hannah Heacox 7-ip, 4-h, 3-r, 1-er, 1-bb, 5-so
LP: Nicole Weigman 6-ip, 9-h, 6-r, 6-er, 2-bb, 3-so
Leading hitters: WBL, Chelsea Johnson 1×3, Molly Sager 1×2, Katie Letourneau 1×3 and Erin Fitzpatrick 1×3; St, Haley Balzart 2×2 (HR, RBI), Allison Eder-Zdechlik 1×3, Natalie Gerber 3×3 (HR, 3 RBI), Hannah Heacox 1×3, Emily Ramberg 1×2 (RBI) and Dani Wigen 1×2 (RBI).
White Bear Lake 1
The Ponies had done little against White Bear Lake starter Nicole Weigman, who blanked them on a complete game three-hitter on Tuesday night to go along with a shutout victory over Stillwater on April 20.
Stillwater wasted little time showing that Wednesday was going to be different while scoring three runs in the first inning to take charge in Game 1.
"We had gone 14 innings without getting anything so that was a big start for us," Beedle said. "It was important to make that statement that we were here to play and they knew they were going to be in for a night of softball after that first inning."
Carlie Hart singled to help spark the Ponies in the first and Balzart reached on an error. Eder-Zdechlik, Gerber and Hartwig followed with base hits and Ronsberg delivered a double as the Ponies pushed three runs across.
The Ponies added a run in the fifth as Eder-Zdechlik launched a solo homer to left-center.
Hannah Heacox, meanwhile, carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning until Abby Bircher rapped a lead-off triple and scampered home on an groundout. It was the only hit allowed by Heacox, who did issue five walks but struck out eight in the complete game.
"It was a solid performance by Heacox and we played good defense behind her," Beedle said.
WBL0 0 0 0 0 1 0-112
St3 0 0 0 1 0 x-471
WP: Hannah Heacox 7-ip, 1-h, 1-r, 1-er, 5-bb, 8-so
LP: Nicole Weigman 5-ip, 7-h, 4-r, 4-er, 1-bb, 2-so
Leading hitters: WBL, Abby Bircher 1×3 (3B); St, Allison Eder-Zdechlik 2×4 (HR, RBI), Carlie Hart 1×3, Natalie Gerber 1×3 (RBI), Hannah Heacox 1×2 (RBI), Rachel Hartwig 1×1 (RBI) and Sidnee Ronsberg 1×3.