Thunderbolts win adapted softball state title
The South Washington County Thunderbolts had come tantalizingly close to a title in each of the past two adapted softball state tournaments.
Two years ago, they finished fourth.
Last season, they lost their first-round game before battling back to take home the consolation crown.
But this time around, the Thunderbolts left no doubt that they were indeed the best team in the gym.
The Thunderbolts (14-1) outscored their opponents 35-6 in three games this weekend at Coon Rapids en route to claiming their first CI Division state championship since winning back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006.
“This is the best softball the Thunderbolts have played in eight years -- barr none,” Thunderbolts coach John Culbertson said. “I told them it was our time and they believed it, they’re committed and they’re going home with big smiles.”
South Washington County made a commitment to the defensive side of the game. Culbertson said the squad spent the last week working on drills, skills, fundamentals and understanding where to play in certain situations.
The work showed on the diamond, as the Thunderbolts allowed just six runs during the tournament -- the fewest runs given up by a CI Division state champion since at least 2006, when South Washington County won its last title.
“That’s unheard of,” Culbertson said. “That right there tells me that they bought into the system and that our seniors and our captains instilled it in them and they all believed.”
A lack of errors and a plethora of communication between the fielders behind her only made senior pitcher Amanda Henderson all the more stout on the mound.
“It takes the stress off me, because then I just trust the defense and throw strikes,” she said. “ I don’t have to worry about faking [the batters] out. It keeps everyone calm.”
Keeping calm and controlling emotions were a couple of the major battles of the weekend for the Thunderbolts. They had the pressure of attempting to win state after two near-misses in their last two appearances, and a few of the players had the unenviable task of choosing between playing in the state semifinal and final, or attending their high school graduations on Saturday.
“This week has been very up-and-down,” said Henderson, one of the seniors who chose to play over walking in graduation. “My emotions have been all over the place.”
And while having to keep her own emotions in check, Henderson was also part of a veteran core consistently tried to keep the ‘Bolts focused on the task at hand.
Henderson said she and the other captains held players-only meetings before each of the state tournament games with the hope of keeping their teammates calm and playing loose.
South Washington County topped Chaska/Chanhassen/Prior Lake/Shakopee 11-2 in Friday’s quarterfinals before topping North Suburban, the squad who knocked off the ‘Bolts in last year’s state tournament, and Dakota United, the only team to beat the ‘Bolts this season, by identical 12-2 scores -- both in five innings -- on Saturday to take home the crown.
Junior Lucas Coy said he and his teammates all work well together and our friends away from the sport, which made it easier to succeed on the diamond.
“That helps a lot,” he said. “It keeps everybody calm and focused and helps us overall to make good plays and win state.”
Coy, already a captain, will likely be asked to take on an even larger leadership role next season as Henderson and the five other seniors on the roster depart. But they do so only after leaving a lasting legacy featuring three-straight state tournament appearances with a program that failed to make it to state from 2008-11, and capping their careers with a previously-elusive championship.
And while Henderson said it was originally difficult to make the decision to skip her graduation in favor of the state tournament, in hindsight, it was clear she made the right choice.
“[Winning the championship] felt like nothing I’ve ever felt before,” she said after wiping away freshly-flushed tears of joy. “I can’t even describe it. … It was definitely thrilling to win.”
Henderson, Coy and junior Dylan Kubitschek were all named to the All-Tournament team following their stellar performances during the ‘Bolts run to the title.