By STUART GROSKREUTZ
NORTH MANKATO – Ten innings of tense drama gave way to a four-run outburst in the top of the 11th inning on Thursday as the Stillwater softball team toppled Mankato East 6-2 in the Class AA state semifinals at Caswell Park.
The Ponies, who received a game-tying home run from senior captain Allison Eder-Zdechlik in the seventh inning, advanced to the state finals for the first time since winning their last of their three state championships in 2008. Stillwater will face Maple Grove, a 3-0 winner over Orono in the other semifinal, in today’s championship game at 2 p.m.
"We’re excited to play in that game and our goal is to play the best we can and that will be good enough," Ponies coach Bob Beedle said. "East is a very good softball team and we’re pleased to get beyond them and get a chance to play in the championship."
Despite having the most losses of any team in the state tournament, Stillwater (20-8) embraces its rugged schedule and was unfazed by the 2-1 deficit in the seventh inning before Eder-Zdechlik showed that familiar resolve while launching a titanic blast over the fence in left-center to tie the game at 2-all.
"She hit that so far out of the park I think it’s still going," Beedle said. "There was no doubt on contact, the doubt was whether they’d be able to retrieve the ball or not.
"We’ve been in a lot of tight games this season and these kids just learned how to play in pressure situations."
Hannah Heacox continued her impressive run of late while allowing eight hits and six walks with 13 strikeouts in the complete game – blanking the Cougars over the last eight innings.
She wasn’t flawless – especially compared to the no-hitter she threw a few hours earlier in the quarterfinals – but she was tough in the clutch as the Cougars stranded 12 base runners in the game. East stranded seven base runners combined in the last four innings, including the ninth when Heacox recorded a strikeout to get out of a bases-loaded situation.
"Our kids are just comfortable knowing that they know what to do in those situations and, fortunately, they executed," Beedle said. "Part of Hannah’s strength is that she keeps them loose in the batters box."
The Ponies didn’t have a lot of scoring opportunities against East’s Nicole Ries, a Minnesota State-Mankato recruit. Ries allowed just one walk, but it was costly as Carlie Hart took first base to lead off the 11th inning. Haley Balzart bunted for a hit and Eder-Zdechlik reached on a fielder’s choice that loaded the bases after an error – also the only one of the game for the Cougars – on the shortstop.
Sophomore Natalie Gerber, who homered to provide Stillwater’s first run in the second, drove a two-run single to left to give the Ponies a 4-2 lead. Heacox followed with a base hit to re-load the bases. Rachel Hartwig plated Eder-Zdechlik with a bunt and Dani Wigen added a two-out RBI single to extend the lead to 6-2.
The Ponies became more comfortable facing Ries with each trip to the plate, culminating with the four hits during that four-run 11th inning.
"Mankato East finished third at state last year and they had a great season this year with a pitcher who is going to a Division II school," Beedle said. "I thought our kids played well and they played the whole game. They adapted from at bat to at bat and eventually got some people on base and got some key hits. It isn’t a matter of wearing a pitcher down, it’s a matter of seeing her enough to figure her out.
"I think the hitting you’re seeing her late in the season you can attribute to the kids willing to work on their game. They’ve just bought into some technique that seems to be working for us."
Heacox gave up back-to-back two-out singles in the bottom of the 11th, but notched her 13th and final strikeout to secure the victory.
Still0 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 4-6112
East1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0-281
WP: Hannah Heacox 11-ip, 8-h, 2-r, 2-er, 6-bb, 13-so
LP: Nicole Ries 11-ip, 11-h, 6-r, 4-er, 1-bb, 16-so
Leading hitters: St, Carlie Hart 1×4, Haley Balzart 1×5, Allison Eder-Zdechlik 2×5 (HR, RBI), Natalie Gerber 2×5 (HR, 3 RBI), Hannah Heacox 1×5, Sidnee Ronsberg 1×5, Lauren Jordan 1×4, Dani Wigen 2×5 (RBI); ME, Savannah Quandt 1×5, Nicole Ries 3×5 (2 RBI), Macy Anderson 2×4, Katy Snyder 1×5 and Paige Lingbeck 1×5.
Stillwater 11, Farmington 0
Mankato East 1, Bloomington Jefferson 0
Maple Grove 7, Big Lake 0
Orono 3, Forest Lake 0
Stillwater 6, Mankato East 2 (11 inn.)
Maple Grove 3, Orono 0
Farmington (17-5) vs. Bloomington Jefferson (17-3)
Forest Lake (23-2) vs. Big Lake (14-8)
Friday’s final games
Fifth place, 11 a.m.
Third place – Mankato East (25-4) vs. Orono (24-2), 11 a.m.
First place – Stillwater (20-8) vs. Maple Grove (24-2), 2 p.m.