NORTH ST. PAUL — They had to shed the underdog label after winning a state title last spring, but members of the Stillwater softball team can once again call themselves Section 4AAA champions after defeating East Ridge 6-2 in Thursday’s championship game at McKnight Fields.
The Ponies will make their ninth state tournament appearance next week at Caswell Park in North Mankato, but this marks just the second time Stillwater has qualified for state in consecutive seasons. The only other time that occurred was when Stillwater won back-to-back state titles in 1995 and 1996.
“You can’t even describe the feeling, it’s so amazing,” said senior third baseman Haley Balzart, who delivered two of Stillwater’s seven hits on Thursday. “To go once in your high school career is amazing and to get to go again — out of all the good teams in our section, too — is unbelievable. You see what state is like and it’s the best experience of your life and everybody just worked so hard.”
Unlike a year ago when the Ponies lost eight games and were the No. 4 seed in the section, they haven worn a target all season as the reigning state champions — an experience that made them even hungrier for an encore.
“There is definitely a difference when you come in the shadows of the higher seeds,” Ponies coach Bob Beedle said. “When you come in as the No. 1 seed there are no secrets that you have a pretty good softball team so you have to wear that pressure and perform. You’re not going to sneak up on anybody.”
The victory was Stillwater’s fourth of the season over the Raptors, who gave the Ponies all they could handle in a 7-5 loss in the winners bracket finals on Wednesday. After hitting three home runs and racking up nine hits in that game, Hannah Heacox limited the Raptors to just three hits on Thursday.
“The thing about playing a team four times is that there’s no secrets,” Stillwater coach Bob Beedle said. “They know our strengths and weaknesses and we know theirs. We have a great deal of respect for their team and their coaching staff and they swing the bats.”
Heacox allowed three hits and four walks while striking out nine — giving her a whopping 511 in her varsity career.
In addition to playing errorless defense the past two games, the Ponies have rallied behind Heacox on and off the field since her father Greg Heacox passed away on May 15. The players have been wearing ribbons in their hair with his initials while providing as much emotional support as possible.
“You play not only for yourself now, but you play for Hannah and her family,” Balzart said. “This is her favorite thing and you want to win for her and for the team because it’s not about you anymore. She’s probably one of my best friends and to be there with her and now to be able to go to state with her two years in a row, and doing it for her family, is even better.”
The Ponies jumped in front 2-0 on Sidnee Ronsberg’s two-run homer in the second inning, but East Ridge climbed back with a run in the fourth — an inning that could have ended much differently for Stillwater. The Raptors loaded the bases with one out and Heacox hit a batter to score a run. Heacox got a called third strike on a close pitch to retire the next batter and Stillwater benefitted from a base-running miscue as catcher Morgan Conley picked the base runner off third to end the threat. The runner mistakenly thought the pitch was ball four, instead of strike three and started trotting home before Conley’s alert play ended the inning.
“On the same play they thought they walked in the tying run, but we got out of the inning with a double play,” Beedle said.
Stillwater seized the momentum and tacked on two runs on a two-run blast from Rachel Hartwig — her eighth of the season and third in the past three games.
The Raptors added a run in the top of the sixth, but Stillwater again responded with two runs in the bottom of the inning with help from a throwing error. Stillwater stranded seven base runners, but was even more grateful to win the first championship game after the rain arrived almost immediately after the final out was recorded.
“They’re a really good team and they can hit the ball. We just happened to get our hits at the right time and they didn’t, that’s what the game came down to,” Balzart said. “We didn’t want to put Hannah through two games.”
Carlie Hart and Ronsberg each joined Balzart with two hits for the Ponies.
“We have a number of kids playing specific roles and we have a lot of kids buying into those roles on this team and that always plays to your strengths when you’ve got kids willing to do that,” Beedle said.
The Ponies will face Prior Lake, an 8-4 winner over Mankato West in the Section 2AAA championship game, in the state quarterfinals on Thursday at 11 a.m.
East Ridge 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 — 2 3 1
Stillwater 0 2 0 0 2 2 x — 6 7 0
WP: Hannah Heacox 7-ip, 3-h, 2-r, 2-er, 4-bb, 9-so
LP: Ihns 6-ip, 7-h, 6-r, 5-er, 7-bb, 6-so
Leading hitters: ER, Roth 1×2 (HR); St, Hart 2×3, Balzart 2×4, Hartwig 1×4 (HR, 2 RBI) and Ronsberg 2×3 (HR, 3 RBI).
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at email@example.com