ZUMBROTA –– Legendary Zumbrota-Mazeppa softball coach Kevin Nelson would tell you that he didn’t coach a very good game on Tuesday, but thankfully Avery Steffen and Sydney Higley took him off the hook.

Steffen struck out 17 and Higley belted a run-scoring double in the first inning to spark the Cougars to a big 1-0 victory over ace Maddie Cocker and Byron. The Bears sparkled defensively, throwing out three Zumbrota-Mazeppa runners at the plate, but Steffen was way too good and way too determined to pull out the victory.

Two separate times, the Z-M star hurler had struck out five Bears in a row. Byron had just one runner reach third base (in the fourth inning) but Steffen stepped up with a big strikeout and coaxed a groundout to escape.

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"I’m not sure if it’s the school record but it’s going to be really close,” Nelson said. "I bet it is the record. She was dominant. She’s a two-way player that’s pretty phenomenal. Great kid to coach. As good a player as she is, she’s even a better kid. That’s what’s really neat about it.”

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It was pure dominance from start to finish, and Z-M needed every single bit of it to escape with a monster win over a Byron team that has lofty expectations for 2021.

“Maddie is a great pitcher, and I have so much respect for her,” Steffen said. "She works so hard. But I do what I do. What I've been doing has worked so I just want to keep it going."

Nelson has won a ton of games at Z-M using a similar recipe to Tuesday’s game. The Cougars tend to pitch well. Steffen did just that. They try to limit mistakes defensively, and they didn’t have an error on Tuesday. And then offensively, they try to strike out less than five times per game. That was no easy task against Cocker, who already has garnered plenty of attention from Division I programs. Even though Cocker attacked the Z-M lineup with a barrage of rise balls and heaters, the Cougars continued to put the ball in play. They finished with eight hits and struck out just four times.

It’s a product of hard work and continuing to put the time in to get better. Cocker has been a strikeout machine all year long. But she couldn’t finish off the scrappy Cougars.

“They’ve played together so long, but they didn’t have a lot of success in seventh and eighth grade,” Nelson said. “We had a lot of good players but no one has stepped forward. Avery has worked her butt off to get to where she is. You don’t see many players like this. They look up to her and she produces.”

Steffen sets the tone but Higley’s presence behind the plate and in the lineup is so clutch as well.

The catcher hadn’t even taken all her gear off after the game but was working with some of her younger teammates, showing them how to keep the barrel of the bat in the zone longer and how to stay short with their swings.

“Syd's been such a beast at the plate this year,” Nelson said. “That’s another kid that’s worked really hard. She's not the most talented softball player, but no one works as hard as she does. She wasn’t a great hitter two years ago, but she’s worked at it constantly. She’s a black belt in taekwondo, so she’s clearly got some fast wrists.”

Byron is going to be more than fine. The Bears have excellent pitching and airtight defensive with a lineup full of boppers. They just ran into a buzzsaw on Tuesday.

Wins over Winona Cotter and Byron have Zumbrota-Mazeppa thinking big. More 17-strikeout days could be around the corner for Steffen because of her incredible work ethic and drive to be the best.

"It’s awesome and we’re pumped up,” Steffen said. "We knew we could do it but now that we did it, we’re ready for what’s to come.”

Zumbrota-Mazeppa 1, Byron 0

Byron 000 000 0 — 0 3 0

Zumbrota-Mazeppa 100 000 x — 1 8 0

Byron: Heather Nordlund 1-for-2; Abby Voll 1-for-3; Mia Borowski 1-for-3. Pitcher: Maddie Cocker (LP) 6 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K.

Zumbrota-Mazeppa: Tenlee Magnuson 1-for-2; Sydney Higley 1-for-3, 1 2B, 1 RBI; Lola Wagner 1-for-3; Avery Steffen 2-for-2; Gracie Flicek 1-for-2; Matti Sensland 2-for-3, 1 2B, 1 R. Pitcher: Avery Steffen(WP) 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 17 K.