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Softball: Stillwater denies Park a state title

It wasn't the ending these Park players had been hoping for, as the Wolfpack were shocked by Stillwater Friday in the Class AAAA softball final. John Molene / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 4
Park's Nayeli Pallais tags out Stillwater runner Haley Eder-Zdechik at first to end the first inning. John Molene / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 4
Park left fielder Megan Morris has trouble with a fly ball to left in the first inning Friday in the Class AAAA softball final. John Molene / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 4
Park star senior Delaney Young gets emotional during the post-game award ceremonies. John Molene / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 4

NORTH MANKATO—Class AAAA's best team was done in by Class AAAA's hottest team.

Stillwater, which limped through the regular season with just a 7-12 record, caught fire in the playoffs and rode that streak all the way to a Minnesota state softball championship. The Ponies almost didn't make it out of sections, losing to Cretin-Derham Hall in their opener before reeling off six wins to advance to state.

The Ponies last and greatest victim in their amazing run was top-seeded Park, which fell 5-1 in the Class AAAA championship game Friday before an overflow crowd at North Mankato's Caswell Park.

Stillwater had been on a slightly unbelievable section and state playoff run, winning nine straight games, including knocking off No. 8 North St. Paul twice to get to state, then beating No. 2 Forest Lake, No. 4 Buffalo, and, finally, third-ranked Park at Caswell.

It was a wondrous ending for the Ponies, and a bitter loss for the Wolfpack, who played perhaps the best softball in the state until the very final game.

Park had won five of the last six games against Stillwater coming into Friday's final.

"You beat a team twice during the season, you take it to them the last two seasons four times and there's expectations that we're going to come out and play well," said Park coach Bob Loshek. "Unfortunately we picked the wrong day to play our worst game of the year."

Possessors of a proud softball history, the Wolfpack were trying to win their first softball state championship since 1993. Now that goal will have to wait until next season.

Stillwater also has a rich softball history, with four previous state tiles. They added another glorious chapter to that legacy Friday.

Park had beaten Stillwater 1-0 and 10-3 during the regular season, but the final game of 2018 belonged to the Ponies from the get-go.

Park stormed through the quarter- and semi-finals, swamping Lakeville North 9-0 in the opener and blanking Centennial 10-0 in six innings in the second game. Perhaps those two wins were too easy, mulled coach Loshek.

"We pride ourselves on defense, our pitching and our defense and we've done such a great job of that all year. We played Stillwater both times this year — Sam (Fohrman) shut them down one-nothing at home and Brio shut them down up at their place for the most part and we scored a bunch of runs."

When the Wolfpack fell behind 2-0 after the first inning and then 4-0 after the third, they appeared shell-shocked.

It didn't help Park when the Wolfpack got sent down in order in the first, second and third innings. Park finally starting connecting in the fourth, but by then the damage had been done.

The loss ended a 17-game winning streak for the Wolfpack.

Park finished the season 25-2.

Stillwater scored twice in the first inning, knocking Park starter Bryanna Olson out of the game. But the big blow came in the second inning when the Ponies went up 4-0 on a two-run homer by senior third baseman Alex Ehde.

Park's fierce lineup of hitters, meanwhile, got hits but mostly the ball flew right to one of the Ponies, who made a series of spectacular defensive plays. Park had six hits in the game, led by Megan Morris who went 2-for-3 with a RBI.

"We hit the ball hard and they made every play," said Loshek. "It's just the way the game is. I feel bad for the girls simply because they've worked so hard and they're such an awesome group of kids. I feel bad for them. At the same time 25-2 is nothing to scoff at for the year and second in the state of Minnesota. It was a great season, that's the thing we can't overlook."

Park never pushed runs across until a brief glimmer of hope in the seventh inning.

Shelby Schabacker got things started in the seventh by drawing a walk. Saren Croker then reached on a fielder's choice. But the runner was out at second. Loshek beat out an infield hit to move Croker to second. Morris then drove in Park's only run with a single to score Croker. That brought up Park slugger Delaney Young who filed out, while Loshek was caught in a rundown between third and home. It was a bizarre ending to an already quite bizarre game, at least for the Wolfpack.

It was small consolation, but Park senior third baseman Shelby Schabacker, junior catcher Saren Croker and junior outfielder Madi Meduna were all named to the Class AAA softball all-tournament team.