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New Life Academy softball: Eagles soar to second at state

The New Life Academy softball team poses with the second place trophy after falling to Blooming Prairie 3-1 in the Class A state championship game on Friday, June 7, at Caswell Park in North Mankato.1 / 3
New Life sophomore pitcher Val Hohol delivers during the Eagles' state championship game against Blooming Prairie.2 / 3
New Life sophomore Theresa Baranick beats a throw home as the ball was dropped by Blooming Prairie's catcher on a close play at the plate for the Eagles' lone run of the championship game.3 / 3

New Life Academy's quest for a fifth state championship in the past six years was cut short by last year's Class A runner-up Blooming Prairie and star pitcher Shelbi Swenson.

Swenson, a senior, held powerful New Life Academy (18-4) to four hits and one run, striking out eight, in a 3-1 win over the Eagles in the Class A state championship game on Friday, June 7, at Caswell Park in North Mankato.

Swenson allowed just three runs total in three state tournament games for the Awesome Blossoms (23-3).

"She's a very good pitcher," New Life head coach Mick Ramey said. "She shows good control, throws a nice rise-ball and she climbs the ladder well. She's probably the toughest we've faced this year."

In the championship game, New Life took a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth inning. Sophomore three-hitter Valerie Hohol started things out with a one-out single. With sophomore Theresa Baranick pinch-running for Hohol, senior captain Nicole Johnson rapped a single down the third-base line. Baranick beat the throw home as the ball was dropped by Blooming Prairie's catcher on a close play at the plate.

Hohol, who had nine strikeouts and one walk and allowed nine hits and three runs in the game, had Blooming Prairie on its heels through four innings. However, in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Awesome Blossom's bats came alive. Blooming Prairie's top of the order scored three runs on four hits, including two doubles down the third baseline and a passed ball to take a 3-1 lead.

In the top of the sixth inning, New Life sent out the top of its order, but Swenson shut down the Eagles' big bats. Only Hohol, who was 2-for-3 in the game, had a hit in the inning - a 2-out single.

New Life had one more chance in the top of the seventh inning, but the Eagles couldn't score once again. The only base runner Swenson allowed was sophomore Sydney Steele, who was hit by a pitch.

"This is a great team," New Life Academy senior Nicole Johnson said. "To make it this far, especially during my senior year, is amazing. I love these girls to death. We played our hardest and gave it our all."

New Life, which tied a Minnesota record this season by reaching an eighth straight state tournament, won four consecutive state championships between 2007 and 2011. Last year, in what was supposed the be a rebuilding year, New Life finished in fourth place in the state, falling to Cherry in the state semifinals on its quest for a fifth straight state championship.

Johnson said, after the 2011 season, she didn't know if she'd play in another state tournament.

"I hoped so, of course, but we lost a lot of really good seniors that year," she said. "To make it back here twice now is just great. We kind of surprised a lot of people I think."

Last year, after beating Section 6A champion Sebeka 2-1 in the opening round of the state tournament, New Life fell 2-0 to No. 1-ranked Cherry in the semifinals. Cherry, which lost to New Life in the 2011 state championship game, finished the year undefeated and as 2012 Class A state champions, beating Blooming Prairie 2-1. After the emotional loss to Cherry, New Life suffered a letdown in the third-place game, falling to New Ulm Cathedral 9-2.

To kick off this year's state tournament, New Life earned revenge against the defending state champs. The second-ranked Eagles took down ninth-ranked Cherry 6-3 in the first round of the Class A state tournament on Thursday morning to advance to the semifinals. New Life Academy opened a 2-1 lead in the first inning on Cherry then added a run in the second, a run in the third, a run in the fourth and a run in the sixth to pull away from the Tigers (21-3).

The win over Cherry set up a semifinal against Eden Valley Watkins (15-5) in the second round Thursday afternoon.

In the state semis, the Eagles earned a trip to the Class A title game with a 6-4 win.

New Life scored twice in the bottom of the first to take the lead before Eden Valley tied it up with two in the top of the fourth. New Life, however, struck again in the fifth plating four runs off four hits. All six runs New Life scored in the game were unearned.

Unranked Eden Valley rallied in the seventh scoring twice but could do no more as they fell 6-4.

Ramey said that despite not winning the state championship, it was a very successful season and he was proud of his team.

"We're on track," Ramey said. "Our goal was to get back here this year and win those first couple of games. This game was icing on the cake. Sure, we wanted to win, but we're OK with second. Blooming Prairie is a very good, well-coached team. I applaud their effort."

New Life Academy graduates four seniors, including two everyday players, Johnson, the Eagles' short stop, and first baseman Amanda Pastirik, along with Sarah Stacey and Anna Phipps.

"They've meant a lot to this program," Ramey said.