Winona falls to Mankato West in Class AAA championship to finish runner-up for second consecutive season
The Winhawks offense went cold as the Scarlets avenged last year's state semifinal loss.
NORTH MANKATO — The Winona Senior High softball team all season long had its sights set on avenging last year's loss in the Class AAA championship.
But Mankato West also had a little redemption on its mind after the Winhawks had knocked off the Scarlets in last year's state semifinal on a walk-off in extra innings.
On Friday, it was West that got its sweet revenge with a 5-1 victory in the Class AAA championship at Caswell Park.
It's the second consecutive runner-up finish for Winona and the third since 2016. West also defeated the Winhawks in the 2016 title game.
"They're up there in state for a reason," Grossell said. "They've been good for so many years. It was two good teams battling each other. And the team that makes the most mistakes usually loses and unfortunately, today that was us. It is what it is. We gave everything we had and so did they and they came out on top."
Grossell and company had a tough decision in whether to start Makayla Steffes or Ava Hamsund in the circle after both produced complete game shutouts in Winona's first two games of the tournament.
After much debate, the Winhawks went with Hamsund, who was spectacular against Chisago Lakes in the semifinals by allowing just two hits in seven scoreless innings.
But she had a hard time replicating that same success against a great Mankato West lineup. The circle change-up that had been so good on Thursday didn't phase the Scarlets. In fact, the first hitter of the game for West — Malani Schoper — laced a double down the line off that change-up. She would later come around to score on a fielder's choice by Abigail Stierlen to make it 1-0 to snap the 14 consecutive scoreless innings tossed by the Winona pitching staff.
Hamsund continued to battle, despite not being as sharp as the day before. It looked like she had settled in after she retired the first two hitters in the third, but an error kept the inning alive and led to a two-out, two-strike RBI single from Carly Nelson that broke a 1-1 tie.
"She was a little nervous," Grossell said of Hamsund. "That's Ava. But she channeled and put it away. She performed as well as she could today."
Hamsund kept the Winhawks in it, but the offense just could never deliver that big hit.
Winona finished with seven hits, but outside of Alma Johnson's RBI double in the second, it just couldn't deliver with runner's in scoring position. When it was all said and done, the Winhawks left 11 runners on base.
The one that hurt the most came in the fourth when Winona had the bases loaded with one out and the top of the order coming. Steffes hit a shot to the third baseman Lauren Raberge, who snagged it and threw home for the force and second out of the inning. Macy McNally then followed and hit what appeared to be a sure-fire base hit up the middle. Yet, that's when West shortstop Breck Carlson dove to her left and fielded it cleanly, before staying on her stomach and reaching out with her glove to get the out at second.
It saved two runs at least and with Grace Fricke in the on-deck circle, it perhaps saved a big inning.
"That's what good pitching and good defense does to you," Grossell said. "Bends but doesn't break. We typically play that way too, but they just had the upper-hand today."
West put it away with three runs in the sixth.
Hamsund allowed back-to-back singles, before being pulled for Steffes with one out. Steffes walked a hitter to load the bases and after a strikeout, walked in a run. Stierlen then followed with a two-run double off the center field fence to ice it.
"Makayla threw well but was put in a tough situation," Grossell said.
West starter Stierlen was able to work around an error in the seventh, before getting a pop out to end it.
Although, it didn't the way Winona would have liked, Grossell couldn't have been more proud of this group.
"In all of my years as a coach, I have never been prouder of a team," Grossell said. "These guys really, really excelled this year. They've had a target on their back the whole season. Everybody expected them to be here and to reach that goal — it's so hard to reach that goal. It's so hard when everyone is giving you their best shot. They just excelled.
"I told them today was icing on the cake for the whole fantastic season. I'm sad we lost but our season was fantastic."