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New Life Academy softball: Eagles on target early

Junior pitcher Valerie Hohol has helped the New Life Academy softball team start strong. Through four games she’s 4-0 on the mound, allowing just four earned runs. At the plate she’s batting .900 with a team-best five RBI and New Life is 4-0. (Bulletin photo by Patrick Johnson)

Friday’s softball game between New Life Academy and Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity was a matchup between two Class A and Minnesota Christian Athletic Conference powerhouses. 

But, it wasn’t even a contest.

New Life Academy won 10-0 in six innings at the friendly confines of Bielenberg Sports Center in Woodbury to stay unbeaten on the year.

New Life has opened the season 4-0, outscoring its opponents 52-6, including a 4-3 win over Class AA Minnehaha Academy and looks well poised to make a run at a state-record ninth straight state tournament appearance.

However, coach Mark Hohol doesn’t want to talk about the state tournament yet.

“It is too early to bring that up,” said Hohol, who is filling in for head coach Mick Ramey while he recovers from eye surgery. “There are some goals our team has and we’re taking them one at a time. But we don’t talk about that.”

Into the game, Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity was 5-1 overall and had outscored its opponents 96-15. But New Life (4-0; 2-0 MCAA) took it to the Bulldogs. The Eagles scored four runs in the first inning, one in the third, two in the fourth and three in the fifth to make quick work of the Bulldogs (5-2; 4-1 MCAA).

“It was a big game for us,” said New Life junior catcher Malorie Giere, a team captain. “We knew they were going to be tough. For us to come out and play like we did, my hopes are high for the rest of the season.”

Starting pitcher Valerie Hohol threw five innings, scattering five hits, while striking out seven for the shutout. Val Hohol was also 3-for-3 in the win from her No. 3 spot in the lineup. Junior Sydney Steele and freshman Kayla Binsfeld were also 3-for-3 in the game. Steele’s two-RBI double ended the game early.

“We’ve never 10-runned them, even when we had Rebekah and Danielle Schmidt, so this is huge,” said senior third baseman Amanda Heidmann. “I’m really happy right now.”

Heidmann, a team captain who has been playing the hot corner on varsity for the Eagles since eighth grade, provided excellent defense in the win.

“I pride myself in my defense,” she said. “I try to help the team any way that I can. In this game I wasn’t hitting too well, so I thought I’d better do really great on defense. But, I just try to get to all the balls I can.”

New Life won a Minnesota-record four consecutive state championships between 2007 and 2011. Despite fielding just two seniors – Heidmann and Chloe Westlund, the Eagles’ leadoff hitter, shortstop and team captain, NLA has been pegged as a state championship favorite, which would be its fifth in seven years.

“We’re taking it game by game, but my hopes are high,” said Giere, who has already verbally committed to play Division 1 ball for Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tenn., “We have a really strong team this year. The younger girls are playing their parts and it’s been awesome.”

A year ago, in its eighth-straight trip to state, New Life Academy finished as the state runner-up in Class A after falling to Blooming Prairie and their senior pitcher Shelbi Swenson 3-1 in the championship game at Caswell Park in North Mankato. New Life, which went 18-4 overall on the year, was held to four hits by Swenson in the title game.

The Eagles beat Cherry and Eden Valley Watkins to reach the championship.

New Life tied a state record by reaching its eighth consecutive state tournament after beating Minneapolis Washburn 2-0 in the Section 4A Championship game at Hamline University.

With the eight straight state appearances, New Life tied Winona Cotter for the most in the history of Minnesota high school softball. Ramey, who joined the NLA softball team in 2003 and has been the head coach since 2006, has been around for each one.

“A lot of it is the coaching,” Giere said. “They make practice hard, so it makes the games seem easier. Our defense has been solid and if we hit, that’s how softball works. People say hitting wins games and defense wins championships. It’s true.”

Mark Hohol said New Life tries to do the little things right. That has paved the way in the Eagles’ wins.

“We try to put pressure on teams so they make poor decisions,” he said. “We’ve taken advantage of teams making mistakes, throwing to bases they shouldn’t, taking extra bases – those are huge in games. I love our defense. Teams will truly have to hit gappers to get it by our defense.”

However, having dominant pitching and hitting doesn’t hurt.

Val Hohol leads the way on both ends.

Hohol, a starter since seventh grade was first-team all-state, all-section and all-conference as a sophomore. Prior to last year’s state tournament Hohol went 16-3 with a 2.04 ERA, with 128 strikeouts and 16 walks in 110 innings pitched. She also made a huge impact from the plate. In 2013 she hit .554 with a .821 slugging percentage and led the team in hits and RBI.

This year she’s 4-0 on the mound and has allowed just four earned runs. At the plate she’s batting .900 with a team-best five RBI. Along with Hohol, Heidmann, Giere and Binsfeld are all hitting .667, while Steele is batting .625.

“It’s looking good,” Mark Hohol said. “We’re still making mistakes, but our pitching and our defense is making up for some of those. We’re very good at rebounding from our mistakes. The girls have short memories and they pick each other up. We’re not giving up many runs and we’re putting the bat on the ball.”

Heidmann said she is enjoying her final season playing for New Life.

“It’s been better than I could’ve possibly hoped for,” she said. “It was another slow start because of the weather and I was just praying for the best. But, we’ve all came together. It’s amazing. We all just love each other so much and we mess around and have fun together. It’s a lot of fun playing with these girls.”

-Patrick Johnson

Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson has been the South Washington County Bulletin’s sports editor since 2008. He reports on and oversees coverage of high school and amateur sports in south Washington County and Woodbury. Prior to joining the Bulletin, Johnson worked for other Twin Cities suburban newspapers. He is a University of Minnesota graduate.
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