Adapted softball: Thunderbolts reach state tournament
Prior to the season, the South Washington County Thunderbolts came up with the mantra "believe."
Last week, the 'Bolts turned their conviction to reality when they beat White Bear Lake and qualified for the state tournament for the second time since 2007 and for the second year in a row.
"No matter what happens we're going to stick together and believe in each other - that's been our motto this year," said John Culbertson, who is in his first year as head coach of the Thunderbolts, after being an assistant coach for the past 10 years under Denny Larson. Larson, who was head coach for 15 years, helped lead the Thunderbolts softball team 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 and said the team all feels it's not enough just to make it to state this year.
"While we have a lot of seniors, the majority of our starters are underclassmen," Culbertson said. "They're feeling the pressure for the seniors last season and they all want to improve on last year's performance. There's some unfinished business this year."
The Thunderbolts, which will be making their 13th overall appearance in the state adapted softball tournament, have compiled a 9-4 overall record this season and finished in third place in the CI South Division - behind Dakota United and Burnsville/Lakeville/Farmington, who tied for first place.
In the opening round of the playoffs, the third-seeded 'Bolts made quick work of White Bear Lake, the sixth seed out of the CI North, with a 15-0 five-inning win.
In the game, the Thunderbolts opened up a 7-0 lead after two innings and never looked back.
"We took care of business and did what we were supposed to," Culbertson said.
On the year, sophomore Lucas Coy led the Thunderbolts' offense. Coy, a team captain and second-baseman, was 29-for37 on the season for a .784 batting average, scored a team-high 24 runs, hit a team-best 10 doubles and drove in a team-high 23 RBI.
"He's pretty much been the MVP," Culbertson said of Coy, who batted either fourth, fifth or sixth in the batting order throughout the year. "When he was on the team was on."
Fellow sophomore Lucas Fiedler led the team in batting, however. From his leadoff spot, Fielder was 30-for-38 for a .789 batting average and added 18 runs scored. Another sophomore, Dylan Kubitscheck, also hit over .700 on the year. Kubitscheck hit .730, was tied for the team lead in RBI with 23 and scored 17 runs. Tristan Rankin, also a sophomore, had 23 hits, led the team in home runs with three and was third in RBI with 20.
Pitcher Amanda Henderson led the way on the mound. Henderson, a junior and team captain, pitched every inning of every game for the Thunderbolts this season allowing just 7.5 runs per game - a low number for adapted softball.
Culbertson credited the team's improved defense, along with better hitting and pitching, to watching video breakdowns of fielding and batting - a new coaching technique to the team this spring.
"You can say things over and over, but if you can show them something, that seems to work sometimes," Culbertson said. "Bruce, our assistant, has really brought that piece of technology into it and it's helped tremendously."
Last year, in their 12th state appearance, the Thunderbolts finished in fourth place. The 'Bolts won their opening game of state over beating Mounds View/Irondale/Roseville, 17-7. In the following round, however, South Washington County fell to eventual-state champion Anoka-Hennepin, 17-2. The 'Bolts went on to lose a close third-place game to Burnsville/Farmington/Lakeville, 14-11. Henderson and Coy were each named to the All-Tournament team.
This year, South Washington County is the third seed out of the south and faces North Suburban, the second seed out of the North, in the first round of the state tournament on Friday, May 31, at Coon Rapids High School. Win or lose, the 'Bolts will play again on Saturday.
"Our goal this year wasn't just to make it to state, it was to believe in ourselves and win more games there this year than we did last year," Culbertson said.
Dakota United and Burnsville/Lakeville/Farmington, the top two seeds out of the South, and Mounds View/Irondale/Roseville, the top seed out of the North, are the favorites heading in. However, there were no upsets in this year's playoffs, so Culbertson said the truly best eight teams are in this year's state tournament and that any team could win it all. Anoka-Hennepin won last year's state title over Dakota United.
"There are no weak teams in the state tournament this year," Culbertson said. "But, anything can happen in the state tournament. We can always hit the ball, but at this time of the year, defense wins championships."