Thunderbolts eyeing first state championship title since 2006
South Washington County Thunderbolts head coach John Culbertson knows he has something special this season.
Led by a core of players who have taken the field together for up to six years, the Thunderbolts adapted softball team is sitting at 8-1 on the year and has its eyes fixed on doing big things at the state tournament.
“This is our one chance,” Culbertson said. “We’re trying to make it count. They understand that. They get it.”
Culbertson is in his second year as head coach of the Thunderbolts after being an assistant coach for 10 years under Denny Larson. Larson, who was head coach for 15 years, helped lead the Thunderbolts softball team — a mix of players from East Ridge, Park and Woodbury high schools — to 12 state tournaments and two state championship titles (in 2005 and 2006). Culbertson was also on board for the back-to-back state titles.
“This is the best team we’ve had since we won the state championship in 2006 – easily,” Culbertson said. “The leadership, the way they hit the ball, the fielding and the way they understand situations during the game have been outstanding.”
The South Washington County adapted softball team has reached the state tournament the past two years. This season, the ‘Bolts hope to make it three in a row. Last year the Thunderbolts finished as consolation champions after earning fourth place in the state the year before.
“I want to get that ring,” said junior captain Lucas Coy. “If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine. We’ll know we tried our best. But I think we have a championship team. I think the past three years we’ve had the potential to go all the way.”
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, South Washington County is on top of the CI (Cognitive Impairment) Division — one game ahead of second-place Minneapolis. On the year, the ‘Bolts have outscored their opponents 124-40 (an average of 14-4 per game.)
South Washington County assistant coach Bruce Fiedler said a big part of the Thunderbolts’ success is team chemistry.
“A lot of the kids have played together for five, six years,” he said. “That really helps. Being from three different schools, they’re not always together, but with this team they come together as one. They put aside the differences that they come from Park, Woodbury and East Ridge.”
Amanda Henderson, a senior captain and the team’s starting pitcher, has been playing softball for the Thunderbolts for six years.
“Our main infield and a couple of our outfielders have all been on the team for a long time,” said Henderson. “We’ve all played together a lot the past six years. We know when to push each other and when not to.”
Henderson said the team has “really become a family.”
“We’ve really stuck together and it’s all just kind of worked this year,” Henderson said. “We’re hitting well and it’s great to hit, but you can only hit so much. Fielding the ball, making the play and the double play is really rewarding.”
Culbertson said a big moment this season came with a 14-13 win over defending state champion Burnsville/Lakeville/Farmington on April 30.
The Thunderbolts were ahead 13-8 going into the bottom of the sixth inning.
Burnsville/Lakeville/Farmington scored five runs — the maximum allowed in adapted softball in an inning — in the bottom of the sixth to tie the game 13-13. The Thunderbolts scored a run in the top of the seventh to go ahead 14-13 and hung on for the win, ending the game on a double play by Coy and Lucas Fiedler at first base.
“The kids were really rattled and flustered. But they challenged themselves and the team came through,” Culbertson said. “We took their best punch and came back with our own counter punch. To make a statement against that team was huge. It was a lot of fun.”
Coy is an offensive leader and is a key defensive player at second base. On the year, Coy leads the team with a .846 batting average, 16 extra-base hits, 18 RBIs and 15 runs scored in 26 at-bats.
Junior first baseman Lucas Fiedler is second on the team in batting, with an .821 batting average. Thomas “TJ” Jarosiewicz is third on the team with a .762 batting average and is second in runs scored with 14. Henderson has the team’s fourth-best batting average at .750. Other key players include Tristan Rankin, who is batting .692 with 11 RBIs and 10 runs scored; Dylan Kubitschek, who is hitting .692 with 11 RBIs and 10 runs scored; and John Stutleberg, who is hitting .591 with 11 runs scored and seven RBIs.
Coy said it’s been a total team effort.
“We work good together, we keep each other focused and calm and we make good plays,” Coy said. “Overall this is just a really good team. But, if we didn’t get along well we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
The Minnesota Adapted Athletics Association formed in 1984. Its mission is to “provide youth with disabilities the same opportunity as other students to enjoy the benefits of a quality high school sports program.” In 1992 the MAAA was accepted into the Minnesota State High School League. Minnesota is the only state in the country with a high school sports league for kids with disabilities.
Culbertson said his team’s motto this year is “commitment.”
“I like to have themes,” he said. “This year we’re asking for commitment. Not only to the team, but to themselves, their teammates and their coach. And that’s not only on the field, that’s at school or their job. We want them to take it seriously. This is a privilege to be able to play a varsity sport for your high school.”
South Washington County will hold its Senior Night on Wednesday, May 14, against Minneapolis at East Ridge High School in the regular-season finale. The playoffs begin on May 21 with the state tournament taking place Friday and Saturday, May 30-31, at Coon Rapids High School.
“I hope we do better than we did last year,” Henderson said. “I hope to go out with a first-place trophy and get a championship ring and all that. But we’re trying to stay grounded and take it one game at a time.”