NLA Softball: Eagles repeat as State champions
A season-long quest to prove themselves came to a triumphant conclusion on Friday afternoon as the New Life Academy softball team earned its second straight Class A state championship with a 7-0 defeat of Maple Lake -- the team the Eagles also bested for the 2008 title -- in the gold medal game at Caswell Park in North Mankato.
Yet, while last year's meeting was a nail-biter until nearly the very end, this season's matchup served more as a coronation of the newest member to the pantheon of Class A greats.
Eagles pitcher Danielle Schmidt hurled a two-hitter while striking out nine batters in the contest to set a new state tournament record with 55 K's in three games. In all, the senior set three new state tournament records: most strikeouts for a tournament, most K's in one game (32), most no-hitters total in a State career (3).
"I didn't want a tight game today," Schmidt admitted. "Yesterday (versus Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial and Silver Bay) was tough enough -- 7-0 was the perfect score for today."
New Life Academy shortstop Jenny Ramey scored the only run her team would need by coming home on a throwing error after leading off the game on a "whoopsie" double that arced high into the windy sky and fell just past the infield in-between Maple Lake shortstop Nicole Blizil and leftfielder Amanda Horst.
However, New Life wasn't done yet, as first baseman Rebekah Schmidt and sister Danielle both reached base later in the frame. New Life took advantage of some shoddy Irish defense to plate two more unearned runs -- Andrea Peterfeso, running for Danielle, scored run No. 3 -- as the defending champions all-but clinched the contest before the top of the second inning.
From there, Schmidt and the Eagles' defense were in total control, allowing just two baserunners over the course of the game -- with neither getting any further than first base.
Peterfeso scored New Life's fourth run in the third inning on a throwing error before Jesse Simonson drove in the final runs of the year -- Schmidt, Peterfeso and Ramey -- on a two-out, sixth-inning double to bring the count to its soon-to-be final of 7-0.
The Irish went quickly and quietly in their final turn at the plate in the top of the seventh with a groundout to shortstop, a strikeout and a grounder to Danielle Schmidt, whose toss to Rebekah touched off one of the more understated State victory celebrations in recent memory.
"To every journey, there's an end," coach Mick Ramey said. "It's been a great run."
While New Life closed out 2009 with a 22-6 record and a second championship trophy, the spring started out quite differently.
"It's quite amazing," coach Mick Ramey said. "A couple of months ago, I didn't think we had the tools to repeat."
The Eagles, with six new varsity starters, stumbled out of the gates with a 1-2 record. The squad's low point came in an error-laden 3-1 loss to Visitation -- led by former NLA coach Marco Machado -- on April 17.
"That game was a wake-up call," coach Ramey said. "It taught us that we weren't just going to be able to rest on our laurels."
From there, however, New Life would go on to win seven in a row -- until dropping three-straight games at the Polar Classic Tournament in North St. Paul.
However, even a trio of setbacks -- all to Class AAA schools -- went a long way towards forging the would-be back-to-back Class A champs.
"I think the Burnsville game (New Life faced the then No. 1-ranked Blaze in the Polar Classic opener, a 4-3 loss on April 24) was definitely the turning point of the season," coach Ramey said. "From there, we started excelling."
After their weekend in North St. Paul, New Life would lose just once more then entire spring -- a 3-0 setback at Class AA Becker on May 9 in the regular-season finale.
New Life entered the postseason with a 14-6 record -- good enough to be entirely ignored by the Minnesota State Coaches Association pollsters.
Despite sweeping their conference schedule and blowing away the competition in five sectional contests -- allowing just two runs total in five games -- New Life came to North Mankato unranked as they prepared to face Class A's No. 1-rankee, Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial, on Thursday morning.
"I didn't know that they were ranked No. 1, but I knew that we were unranked," Jenny Ramey said. "That gave us a lot of motivation -- we had a chip on our shoulder. We knew we were the best team in Class A and wanted to prove it."
NLA vs. LC-WM
New Life cleared the largest hurdle they faced in search of earning back-to-back State titles as the Eagles toppled the Knights, 3-2, behind Danielle Schmidt's jaw-droppingly historic performance.
The hurler recorded 32 of the 33 outs NLA recorded by strikeout, with the other coming on a sacrifice bunt fielded by Danielle and thrown to sister Rebekah at first base. The senior allowed just two runs total on six hits in the one-run victory.
"My goal is always to strike the batter out," Danielle said. "I was pitching my hardest and we kept getting three outs per inning."
The morning belonged to the soon-to-be graduated Schmidt, who also plated sophomore outfielder Katie Stodolka with the game-winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning on a single with two on and nobody out.
The Eagles had led 2-0 after taking the lead in the first inning on a leadoff home run by Ramey and adding an unearned run scored by Stodolka in the fourth.
"We knew coming in that we were facing a very competitive team and it was good to jump on them early," Ramey said.
However, LC-WM tied the game at 2-all in the sixth on a two-run homer by shortstop Amber Hohenstein and the game went to extra innings after both teams went quietly in the seventh.
"We knew we had to just keep battling after they got the home run," Ramey said. "We just stayed focused -- it was a fun game to play."
Each team advanced runners into scoring position a total of four times, with both New Life and LC-WM getting a runner as close as third base in the ninth and tenth innings, respectively. Yet, neither club could push the deciding run home until the Eagles finally decided matters in the 11th with three-straight hits from Stodolka, first baseman Rebekah Schmidt and Danielle Schmidt to clinch a spot in the semifinals later that day.
NLA vs. Silver Bay
Danielle Schmidt entered the Class A semis tied with two other pitchers for the most no-hitters in state tournament history. Just over an hour later, the senior owned the record all by herself.
After hurling her first two State no-hitters last season, Schmidt tossed no-no No. 3 in a 5-0 victory over the Mariners. To put the accomplishment in perspective, there have been just 26 no-hitters thrown in the 33-year history of the tournament and 12 percent of those now belong to the Eagles' ace -- who tossed 14 strikeouts while walking three in the semifinal victory.
Jenny Ramey gave the Eagles all the offense they would need in the top of the first inning by hitting a leadoff single, advancing on a passed ball and a fielder's choice, then scoring on another passed ball to give New Life a 1-0 lead before Schmidt took to the rubber.
The wily six-year varsity veteran put two aboard on walks before striking out the side in the first, allowing a runner to get to third before extinguishing the threat. Silver Bay would not come so close to scoring again in the six frames to follow.
New Life added three insurance runs in the fifth inning to all-but put the game away by scoring the trio of tallies with two outs as Ramey, third baseman Natalie Schad and Stodolka all came home to give NLA a commanding 4-0 advantage.
For good measure, the Eagles plated one more runner as Ramey walked, advanced on a wild pitch, stole third and a notched the Eagles' final score of the day on a throwing error to bring the count to its would-be final five-run differential.
Schmidt allowed her third and final walk of the contest to lead off the seventh, but followed that up with her 14th K of the matchup before Silver Bay lined into a double play to make it official as New Life punched its ticket for the finals, which they had little trouble in winning.
"We began the season without a lot of practice and a lot of new players," Ramey said. "While I hoped for (a State title), I didn't expect it at first. Now that we did it, it really feels great."
End of an era
For Ramey and Schmidt, who will soon join second baseman Liz Joseph and outfielder Rachel St. John on the graduation stand, the day was somewhat bittersweet as it brought to an end their six-year careers with the Eagles softballers.
"It's kind of wierd," Ramey said. "It really hasn't hit me yet -- but this is a good way to end it."
Ramey and both Schmidts were honored with spots on the all-tournament team. However, the elder Schmidt etched her name into the state tourney record books, not once, not twice, but three times before the Eagles' two-day appearance at Caswell had ended -- and the buzz around the park was that the trio of new standards could stand for a very long time.
"I had a blast and I give God the glory," she said. "Everything worked out and it's awesome -- I couldn't have asked for more."
With Danielle making plans to attend Wheaton College in Illinois next year and Ramey heading to Carleton -- both look to play softball collegiately -- New Life now bids farewell to the two cornerstones of their program for the better part of this decade.
"Last year's championship was real special," Ramey said. "This one is the icing on the cake -- it's been an amazing number of years and we wanted to go out with a championship."
Also saying goodbye is "interim" coach Mick Ramey, who took over full-time for Machado -- the architect of NLA's first two State qualifiers -- after the 2007 campaign.
"It's just been a phenomenal group of kids to coach," he said. "I'm so proud of these girls -- they really put New Life Academy on the map."