NORTH MANKATO — Stillwater’s reign as state champion ended on Thursday with a 3-1 extra-inning loss to Prior Lake in the Class AAA state quartefinals at Caswell Park. The setback was a painful reminder of how difficult it is to win any state championship, much less repeat.
“I thought our kids were ready to play, but we just got beat by a terrific softball team,” Ponies coach Bob Beedle said.
Prior Lake followed up its eight-inning victory over the Ponies with a 5-3 triumph over Maple Grove to earn a spot in today’s state championship game. The Lakers (17-3) will face Elk River, which defeated Orono 2-1 and Suburban East Conference champion Forest Lake 9-3, in the finals. The Elks are coached by former Ponies standout Stacy (Schoenrock) Sheetz.
“We think we had a terrific season,” Beedle said. “If you look at the overall picture, we defended well and we didn’t roll over. We just came up against a really good softball team.”
Six of the eight large-school games contested on Day 1 were decided by two runs or less and the Ponies were on the short end twice after getting eliminated by Bloomington Jefferson 3-2 in the consolation semifinals on Thursday afternoon.
“We didn’t get it done,” Beedle said. “The state tournament is always one swing of the bat or once bounce of the ball and it didn’t go our way today.”
The one swing of the bat that sank the Ponies against Prior Lake was wielded by slugger Justus Perry in the top of the eighth inning. Stillwater intentionally walked the talented freshman twice and was trying to do the same with two outs in the eighth when she laced a two-run double down the left-field line to provide the difference.
Prior Lake’s winning rally started with Isabelle Gates reaching on an error and a bunt single by No. 2 hitter Isabelle Gates. Pitcher Hannah Heacox got a pop-up for the second out and the Ponies were planning to send Perry to first base with a semi-intentional walk.
“We didn’t want to give her anything to hit and be 6 to 8 inches out of the zone, but the ball drifted in where she could get a shot at it,” Beedle said. “She hits .550 and we did not want to pitch to her there. We walked her twice intentionally and I guess we should have the third time. I figured she really wanted to hit there and we thought maybe she’d chase something a foot off the plate and pop something up or hit a weak grounder, but she’s a terrific hitter and if you put the ball around the plate she’s going to drive it hard.”
Stillwater was unable to match in the bottom of the eighth to end its hopes of becoming just the second large-school team to repeat since the state tournament was expanded to three classes in 2000.
The Ponies had opportunities to score early, but finished with just two hits off Morgan Rykken.
Trailing 1-0 going into the bottom of the sixth, Haley Balzart came through with a solo blast over the fence in center that energized the Ponies in the bottom of the inning and evened the score at 1-all.
Balzart sent another ball to deep center in the third inning with a runner on third base, but Gates made a leaping catch in center with two outs to end the threat. Stillwater also threatened in the fifth with Rachel Hartwig taking a lead-off walk — the first time she has been walked all season — and advancing to third before Sidnee Ronsberg’s hard liner was snared for the third out to keep the game scoreless.
“We just didn’t get a key hit,” Beedle said. “We had lots of opportunities in this softball game and they either made a good catch or good play on defense or we didn’t hit the ball hard, but we had good opportunities.”
Rykken, who effectively used the bottom portion of the strike zone, walked three and finished with just two strikeouts.
“We had a lot of line-drive outs,” Beedle said. “Our kids are swinging the bats and we’re being patient up there, but we just didn’t get the key hits when we had runners in scoring position.
“It isn’t so much about what they do of what they did, it’s about what we didn’t do. That was not an overwhelming pitcher and we drove the ball all over the place, but it just didn’t fall for us today.”
Heacox, who this week was named the Minnesota Gatorade Softball Player of the Year and the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year, finished with eight strikeouts and effectively shut down the Lakers for much of the game — despite their averaging more than nine runs per game and batting .425 as a team.
“We had seven innings and 21 outs to get two or three runs, but we didn’t get it done,” Beedle said.
Heacox worked out of some trouble after Prior Lake scored its first run in the sixth after Kara Lattery’s sacrifice fly scored the first run of the game. After walking Perry, Heacox induced a groundout from Sam Buhmann with runners on second and third to end the inning.
The loss was the first for the Ponies (20-5) since losing to fellow state qualifier Forest Lake in Game 2 of a doubleheader on May 11, a span covering nine games.
PL 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 2 — 3 4 1
Still 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 — 1 2 1
WP: Morgan Rykken 8-ip, 2-h, 1-r, 1-er, 3-bb, 2-so
LP: Hannah Heacox 8-ip, 4-h, 3-r, 1-er, 4-bb, 8-so
Leading hitters: PL, Shaye Barton 2×4, Isabelle Gates 1×3 and Justus Perry 1×2 (2B, 2 RBI); St, Haley Balzart 1×4 (HR) and Lauren Jordan 1×2 (2B).
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at firstname.lastname@example.org
Elk River 2, Orono 1
Forest Lake 3, Farmington 1
Maple Grove 2, Jefferson 1
Prior Lake 8, Stillwater 1 (8 inn.)
Elk River 9, Forest Lake 3
Prior Lake 5, Maple Grove 3
Orono 2, Farmington 0
Bloomington Jefferson 3, Stillwater 2
Consolation — Orono vs. Bloomington Jefferson, 9 a.m.
Third-place — Forest Lake vs. Maple Grove, 11 a.m.
Championship — Elk River vs. Prior Lake, 1 p.m.