New Life Academy softball: Reloaded Eagles finish fourth in state
Despite fielding a roster with no seniors and starting nine players at new positions, the New Life Academy softball team brought home hardware from the state tournament for a sixth straight year.
New Life Academy - the winner of the past four Class A state championships and the only school in state history to win four state titles in a row - earned fourth place in the 2012 Class A Minnesota State Softball Tournament, held Thursday and Friday at Caswell Park in North Mankato.
After beating Section 6A champion Sebeka 2-1 in the opening round of the state tournament, New Life Academy (17-9) was edged 2-0 by No. 1-ranked Cherry in the state semifinals. Cherry, which NLA beat in the state final last year, finished the year undefeated and as Class A state champions. After the emotional loss to Cherry, New Life suffered a letdown in the third-place game, falling to New Ulm Cathedral 9-2.
"I'm absolutely happy with where we ended up," Ramey said. "The goal was to be over .500 and we certainly did that. It was a surprise to be at the state tournament and a lot of fun being there."
2012 was NLA's seventh straight state tournament appearance. The Eagles' streak of seven straight state tournament appearances is the second-longest in state history. Only one team - Winona Cotter - has been to eight straight state tournaments. Two teams - St. Bernard's and Hermantown - have been to six consecutive state tourneys.
The Eagles competed in their first-ever state tournament in 2006 and were Class A runner-ups in 2007. Bouyed by starting pitchers Danielle Schmidt and Rebekah Schmidt, New Life won the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 Class A State championships. Prior to New Life, New Ulm Cathedral was the last team to win three-straight championships -- in 1993, 1994 and 1995.
Freshman pitcher Val Hohol was a key to the Eagles' success this season. Taking the reins from Rebekah Schmidt, she went 15-5 during the regular season, striking out 125 in 131 innings with a 2.96 ERA along batting .446 on with 24 RBI.
"She was really very mature and very controlled," Ramey said. "I was very pleased with the job she did. She came up and really took care of business."
In Thursday's opener, NLA faced off with the Trojans of Sebeka, who were making their first trip to the state tournament. Despite scoring 191 runs in its 25 games prior to state, the Eagles and Hohol shut down Sebeka. Hohol surrendered only three hits and one earned run over seven innings, walking one and striking out eight.
After Sebeka (21-6) took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning, the Eagles scored their first run in the third inning through a two-out double by sophomore Chloe Westlund followed by a clutch RBI single by sophomore Amanda Heidmann. Then, in the sixth inning, NLA scored the eventual game-winning run on back-to-back singles by freshman Malorie Giere and junior Nicole Johnson, followed by a Sebeka throwing error while fielding freshman Stacia Butwin's sacrifice bunt. Hohol then slammed the door shut in the top of the seventh with a 1-2-3 inning giving the Eagles a dramatic, come-from-behind opening-game victory.
Heidmann was 3-for-3 with an RBI and Giere was 2-for-3 to lead the NLA offense in the game.
"It was fun to win that first game," Ramey said. "That was one of our goals. You win that one and you get two more games no matter what."
On Thursday night, however, the Eagles failed to muster any offense in a disheartening 2-0 loss to the Cherry Tigers.
Cherry (25-0) jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning through a double down the third base line followed by an RBI single. From that point until a controversial sixth inning, neither team was able to generate much offense. With one out and nobody on, Cherry's leftfielder Kirstin Lahti hit a deep fly ball to centerfield that went under the fence seeming to be ruled a ground-rule double. While confusion ensued whether or not a dead ball was going to be called, the batter rounded the bases and was later awarded an inside-the-park home run. In the end it didn't matter, however, as the Eagles went down 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh inning and finished the game with only one hit and no runs scored.
"(Cherry) played three tough games," Ramey said. "They never blew anyone away. We played them tough. Every game this year we've gotten key hits. This was the one game when we just didn't get the key hits."
Giere had the lone hit of the game for NLA to go along with two walks. Senior pitcher Shaina Novak claimed the win for Cherry, striking out four. On the year, Novak was 18-0 record, with 141 strikeouts in 110 innings pitched and an ERA of 0.958.
"She kind of threw us off a little bit," Ramey said. "We've seen some good pitching throughout the year, but maybe it was a combination of nerves and because it was the first time there for a lot of these girls. It was a little different."
In the third-place game on Friday, the Eagles fell behind New Ulm Cathedral (22-5) 4-1 after the first inning and were never able to get out of their rut, eventually losing 9-2. The Eagles were outhit 13 to three and committed three errors in the game. The lone offensive highlights were an RBI single by Hohol in the first and a solo homerun by Giere in the fourth.
"I think the game against Cherry really drained us," Ramey said. "To be that close to beating the No. 1 team and the first undefeated team since 1993 really took something out of us."
For the tournament, Hohol's pitching earned her a second-straight all-tournament team selection. On the offensive side, the hitting of Heidmann and Giere gave them a combined total of eight of the team's 11 hits for the tournament. Giere was second in batting at state, hitting a scorching .714.
Despite the losses, Ramey and coach Keith Stein said they were proud of their team's approach and effort this season and think the future looks bright for the retooled Eagles.
"Next year we'll be a year older and a year more mature," Ramey said. "I think this experience will really help. We'll set some big goals and hopefully take care of business next year."