By STUART GROSKREUTZ – Stillwater Gazette
NORTH MANKATO – A season that began with a whimper ended with a bang on Friday as the Stillwater softball team upended Maple Grove 6-2 in the Class AAA state championship game at Caswell Park.
The upstart Ponies (21-8) – whose eight losses are the most of any large-school state champion since the inaugural tourney in 1977 – made steady progress throughout the season while cutting their teeth against strong competition and it paid off with the program’s first state title since 1998 and fourth overall.
"Amazing, this is just a dream come true for me and my teammates," said Allison Eder-Zdechlik, one of just three seniors on the postseason roster. "I’m just so thrilled and proud of them. It’s just been a great ride. We were definitely probably the underdogs, but I’d say we proved to everybody that we could do it and we just came through. I’m just so proud of my teammates, we improved so much throughout the year."
Stillwater, which wasn’t even receiving votes in the final state coaches rankings, ended the season by winning 11 of their last 12 games. The Ponies opened the season with a 14-9 setback and also endured a 2-5 stretch midway through the season, but never lost confidence that they had the makings of a contender.
Even if the records said otherwise, Stillwater never looked like an underdog while jumping out to an early lead and defeating the No. 1 ranked Crimson (24-3) in the state finals.
"Clearly there’s a difference if you go into the state tournament with a 21-1 record compared to 18-8 for people who have been on the outside," Ponies coach Bob Beedle said. "It’s understandable if they label you a low hurdle, not a high hurdle. I have a great deal of respect for my assistants (Roger) Stippel and (Michael) Meyers and we have an approach that hasn’t changed, which is that we take one game at a time."
Hannah Heacox, who fired a no-hitter in the quarterfinals and another 11 solid innings during a semifinal victory over Mankato East, took advantage of early run support against Maple Grove and finished off her third victory in two days. Heacox allowed 16 hits and just three earned runs in 25 innings during the state tournament.
"Hannah gets stronger as the season goes on and this season was no exception to that," Beedle said. "If you don’t have strength on the rubber you’re not going anywhere and Hannah led us through the section and we can’t say enough about her performance."
Heacox allowed eight hits and four walks while often pitching behind in the count against the Crimson, but recorded seven strikeouts and was at her best with runners on – stranding 10 base runners in the game, including eight in the first four innings.
"She had some key strikeouts in some critical situations for us," Beedle said. "Heacox is going to keep the people in the batters box loose and sometimes it will get away from her a little bit, but she wills her way. It’s not all bad to have a little bit of wildness on occasion. The relay key against Maple Grove is we were able to mix in some changeups and that made their hitters start to change a little bit with a little more off-speed pitches. If they can stand up and get their swings started, eventually they’re going to get to you, but we gave them the gas early and switched gears a little bit, then finished with gas again."
The Ponies scored at least six runs in each of their state tournament games, but unlike the semifinals – which took four runs in the 11th to provide the difference – they jumped on Maple Grove with two runs each in the first and second inning.
Carlie Hart drove a double in the bottom of the first for Stillwater, an early sign the Ponies would not be overwhelmed against pitcher Cayli Sadler, who was named the Star Tribune’s Metro Player of the Year after entering the state tourney with a 22-1 record and 255 strikeouts with an ERA of .75.
Sadler retired the next two batters before sophomore Natalie Gerber delivered an RBI single and Heacox followed with a base hit up the middle. Freshman Rachel Hartwig added drove a run-scoring single up the middle for a 2-0 lead.
The Crimson tallied two hits in the second, scoring a run on Kylie Bratten’s one-out double, but the Ponies responded with two runs in the bottom half for a 4-1 lead. Dani Wigen, who reached base in all three plate appearances and scored three times, singled with one out before Hart drew a walk. Haley Balzart pushed up both runners with a sacrifice bunt for the second out, bringing Stillwater’s top sluggers to the plate.
Eder-Zdechlik dropped a double down the right-field line to score both runners before Sadler induced a groundout to end the inning.
"To not leave runners on base and to get those runners home is really huge, especially with two outs," Eder-Zdechlik said.
"We elected to bunt for the second out, which a lot of coaches might question that decision, but we were trying to set up E-Z and Gerber and make them pitch to one of them," Beedle said. "They elected to pitch to E-Z and she got the bat on the ball and it found a spot out there on the grass. Those were two big runs for us."
It was enviable territory for the Ponies, who trailed in the seventh inning of their semifinal victory over Mankato East and were behind in the sixth inning of elimination-game victories over White Bear Lake and North St. Paul in the section tourney.
"We’ve been behind in a lot of games in the section and state tournament," Beedle said. "When we got a few runs, I thought holy cow, we’re ahead. That absolutely took some of the pressure of us and laid a little pressure on their laps. To score first in a championship game is even more important."
Armed with some run support, Heacox allowed some base runners but never appeared rattled, especially while working out of a bases-loaded situation in the fourth. The Crimson strung together three straight hits with one out and scored a run on an errant throw after a bunt. Facing the heart of the order, Heacox retired Sadler on a flyout to center and, after a walk to Mandi Mauch, induced an inning-ending groundout from Jordan Mauch to maintain a 4-2 lead.
"I went to the mound, but our kids seemed to be real stoic," Beedle said. "We’ve been in those situations before but when I looked into their eyes they just didn’t seem to be worried and, more importantly, Hannah Heacox didn’t seem to be worried. Getting out of that fourth inning was the key and from that point on we had nine outs to go and as we crossed each one of those outs off we got more comfortable."
Stillwater also extended its lead with a run in the bottom of the fourth. Wigen singled again for the Ponies and Hart reached on an error in right field that allowed the speedy Wigen to score from first.
"When we got that fifth run, you could see the air come out of their balloon," Beedle said.
The Ponies tacked on another run in the sixth, with Wigen again providing the spark with a lead-off walk. After stealing second base and advancing to third on a groundout, Wigen scampered home on a sacrifice fly by Balzart for a 6-2 advantage.
"Typically when you have this kind of a run, your seniors are going to make major contributions," Beedle said of Wigen, Eder-Zdechlik and right-fielder Alex Erickson, who are the only seniors on the roster. "Alex made a couple of nice plays defensively and Wigen and Eder-Zdechlik swung the bats in key situations."
Heacox said she always has high expectations, but confidence started building midway through the season while finding some success against a challenging schedule.
"My goal is always to make it to state, no matter if we get there or not," Heacox said. "(Early in the season) we started to get a feel for each other and then like the second half of conference play it was like OK, we know we can do this and we just took that momentum going into sections. It was just like, guys, we can totally do this. I just felt good about this team as a whole."
Playing in a strong conference and section, the Ponies also worried less about their opponents and more about their own play. A 1-0 loss to SEC champion and fellow state qualifier Forest Lake did little to shake Stillwater’s confidence.
"That really wasn’t that big of a setback and we used that as a measuring stick because we didn’t think we played our best game," Beedle said. "Beating Hill-Murray wa another event and then, of course, knocking North St. Paul off two times in the section meant that we beat some very good teams. That showed if we play up to our abilities we could get this done. We said let’s not worry so much about them, but we need to worry about ourselves and play our best game. If they beat us and our best game, we’ll tip our hats and congratulate them. This wasn’t about our opponent, this was about us."
Maple Grove0 1 0 1 0 0 0-282
Stillwater2 2 0 1 0 1 x-681
WP: Hannah Heacox 7-ip, 8-h, 2-r, 1-er, 4-bb, 7-so
LP: Cayli Sadler 6-ip, 8-h, 6-r, 5-er, 3-bb, 3-so
Leading hitters: MG, Abby Bunnell 2×4, Jordan Mauch 1×4, Sydney Smith 2×4, Kylie Bratten 2×3 (2B, RBI) and Sara Dominicak 1×2; St, Carlie Hart 1×3 (2 runs), Haley Balzart 0×2 (RBI), Allison Eder-Zdechlik 2×4 (2 RBI), Natalie Gerber 1×4 (RBI), Hannah Heacox 1×3, Rachel Hartwig 1×3 (RBI), Dani Wigen 2×3 (3 runs).
Stillwater 11, Farmington 0
Mankato East 1, Bl. Jefferson 0
Maple Grove 7, Big Lake 0
Orono 3, Forest Lake 0
Stillwater 6, Mankato East 2 (11)
Maple Grove 3, Orono 0
Bloomington Jefferson 4, Farmington 3 (8 inn.)
Forest Lake 11, Big Lake 0 (6 inn.)
First place – Stillwater 6, Maple Grove 2
Third place – Orono 5, Mankato East 1
Fifth place – Bloomington Jefferson 5, Forest Lake 3