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New Life Academy softball: Eagles begin quest for state inside

New Life Academy junior Chloe Westlund and the Eagles softball team opened the season with a triple-header on Saturday, April 20, at the Vadnais Heights Sports Center, going 1-2 against three formidable foes.

With the weather historically bad this spring, the New Life Academy softball team took things inside.

The Eagles played a triple-header on Saturday, April 20, at the Vadnais Heights Sports Center, going 1-2 against three formidable foes. New Life Academy, which finished fourth in the state in Class A last year, fell 10-0 to Class AAA power Eagan, lost 6-4 to Rice Lake, a big school in Wisconsin, before beating Totino-Grace, another Class AAA school, 9-7 in the finale.

This year, New Life Academy - which won four state championships in a row between 2008 and 2011 - is hoping to reach its eight-straight state tournament, which would tie Winona Cotter for the most consecutive state tournament appearances in state history.

The past several years the Eagles have often played a very difficult non-conference schedule, and they found it on Saturday to get the season rolling.

"We like to push ourselves whenever we can and play the biggest schools that we can" NLA head coach Mick Ramey said. "it makes us better by exposing our weakness and also gives our girls the confidence that we can compete at a high level."

The opener - at 7 a.m. against Eagan was an easy game to forget, Ramey said. The Eagles couldn't deliver any offense other than a couple of infield singles and looked rusty defensively .

"Eagan took it to us early and often, and we couldn't muster any response," Ramey said. "Our girls had a tough time adjusting to the speed of a live game after a long month of practice indoors. It was looking like it might be a very long first day of the season for us."

In game No. 2, after a two-hour break, the Eagles regrouped and battled a very good Wisconsin Division II school in Rice Lake (Division 1 is the highest). Despite coming up on the short side of a 6-4 loss, Ramey said he saw a bit more of what he expected to see from their team this year.

"Eighth-grader Kayla Binsfeld had a couple of nice hits, a number of girls bunted well for hits and sacrifices, and we started to go longer in the count to get better pitches to hit and coaxed out some walks," Ramey said. "I think the early-season jitters started to wear off and we started playing New Life softball. I was glad to see us dust ourselves off from the opening game and show some fight."

Ramey said he tried a few girls at new positions in the game. Senior Amanda Pastirik, who returned to the team after a two-year absence, doing a great job at first base, replacing Jess Lamb, who is still recovering from a broken leg suffered in last year's section playoffs.

The third game of the day provided the Eagles with a lot of optimism for the season, as they closed out a long day with a 9-7 victory. Sophomore pitcher Val Hohol went the distance on the mound - her third complete game on the day - and Eagles' big sticks started to find their grove at the plate. Lead-off hitter junior Chloe Westlund was 3-for-4 with three singles, Val Hohol was also 3-for-4 and delivered a triple to lead off the fifth inning, and sophomore Malorie Giere went 2-for-4 with an RBI double.

"We started to get our timing at the plate and our confidence grew," Ramey said. "Our bench got excited and we started to get on a roll offensively."

Also adding to the offense was Binsfeld with a single, double and two stolen bases, junior Amanda Heidmann with an RBI single, and sophomore Sydney Steele with her best performance as an Eagle with two bunt singles and the game-winning double in the sixth inning.

"Our pitcher throwing three complete games in the opening day of the season was amazing." Ramey said. "I was so pleased to see us get big performances throughout the lineup. We can't wait to get outside playing and see where we can go this season. We are now a veteran squad despite having only one returning starting senior (Nicole Johnson) and we have big goals for the season."

The Eagles hope to start outside games this week, weather-permitting, and travel to Rockford this Saturday for another tournament. Ramey said he and his coaches will keep the girls motivated in the meantime.

"Until we get outside, though, we will stay focused on what we can control, and that is practicing hard at getting better any way we can, even if it continues to be on a basketball court," he said. "Our girls are working hard."