AUSTIN — Zumbrota-Mazeppa could taste it. The Cougars were three outs away from securing a spot in the Section 1AA softball championship game. Even though they held a slim 2-1 lead over St. Charles, the bottom of the Saints’ order was due up in the seventh inning and Z-M’s senior ace Avery Steffen had allowed just three hits in the first six innings.
But there’s nothing easy in the postseason, as the Saints and Cougars both discovered Tuesday when St. Charles rallied for a 3-2 victory in the section semifinal at Todd Park, to earn a berth in Thursday's title game.
Saints' batter Emmy Kauten was quickly down two strikes to Steffen to start the seventh, but she somehow coaxed a leadoff walk. After failing to get down a sacrifice bunt twice, senior DJ Berg deadened the ball right down the third base line and Kauten advanced to second on the sacrifice.
That brought up Grace Buringa. The sophomore had been befuddled by Steffen in her first three at-bats. But the fourth time was the charm. Buringa lined a deep fly ball into left-center field that hit off the wall and scored the tying run. Then, Makadyn Gust drilled the go-ahead double into the right-center field gap to give St. Charles the 3-2 lead.
When Gust reached second base, the St. Charles dugout and crowd had erupted and Gust deservedly celebrated with her team. The freshman had come up clutch in the biggest of moments, and St. Charles was able to hold off Z-M for a huge victory.
Makadyn's dad, Adam, is the head coach of the Saints, and he had a beautiful moment to relish in the big win with his daughter.
"She’s a heck of a hitter,” Adam Gust said. "With any pitcher, no matter who it is, if she can put the barrel on it, it’s going to go a ways and she can run well. It’s fun to watch her play.”
That moment meant so much to a St. Charles program that’s incredibly talented but extremely young. Five sophomores started for the Saints on Tuesday. Makadyn Gust (two hits) and Mya Omdahl (one hit, one RBI) are only freshmen but they’ve been huge contributors both at the plate and in the field. Just two seniors (Berg and Jade Krenik) played on Tuesday and Berg’s sacrifice in the seventh inning loomed large in the late rally.
“She’s just clutch,” Adam Gust said. "She played a clutch first base all year long. She does what you need as a senior.”
St. Charles is now one win away from its first-ever trip to the state softball tournament.
Again, though, nothing comes easily in the postseason, and the Saints will have to face Z-M again in Thursday's section final. Z-M will have to beat St. Charles twice to get to state, while the Saints will have to win just once.
Top-seeded Z-M has little time to wonder what went wrong in Tuesday's game. The Cougars jumped out to an early 2-0 lead after junior catcher Sydney Higley blasted a home run in the first inning.
"Higley has hit two home runs off us this year,” Adam Gust said. "She’s a heck of a hitter. We’re still figuring out how to pitch her.”
Usually, two runs are more than enough for Steffen, and the Cougars had two key chances to tack on some much-needed insurance runs, but St. Charles sophomore pitcher Brenna Koeppel came up with some big outs in tough situations.
One of those occurred in the second inning when Rianne Buck blasted a leadoff double and advanced to third on Sarah Mensink's one-out single. But Koeppel bore down and retired both Maddie O’Reilly and Steffen. At one point, Koeppel had retired 11 of 12 batters that she faced.
In the sixth inning, Z-M had a scoring chance again, with runners on first and third with two outs, but Koeppel was able to fan Gracie Flicek to set up the Saints' seventh-inning heroics.
In the bottom of the seventh, Koeppel didn’t allow Z-M to have a chance to start a rally. She struck out Mensink, Tenlee Magnuson and Steffen using a barrage of fastballs, riseballs and changeups. The sophomore finished with 10 punchouts.
"After the second inning, she settled in and really started to hit her spots,” Adam Gust said. "She’s really good at missing in a good way. She doesn’t miss over the plate. Her changeup was working and got a lot of waves at that.”
Gust’s young club was ecstatic with the ginormous win. They have the inside track on a state bid and they need just one more win to punch their ticket.
But Gust and the rest of the St. Charles coaching staff didn’t mince words in the postgame huddle.
“You’re the best team in this tournament,” Gust told the team.
"We’re really young,” Adam Gust said. “We have only two seniors and two juniors. All those freshmen and sophomores were like, ‘Oh, Zumbrota-Mazeppa is really good. They beat us 10-3 early this season.’ So we’re just trying to let them know that we can beat anyone.”
St. Charles will face Zumbrota-Mazeppa again on Thursday at 5 p.m. at Todd Park in Austin after the Cougars staved off elimination with an 8-0 win over Cotter. Z-M will have to beat the Saints twice, and they have championship DNA. But the Saints have something special brewing in 2021.
"We knew we had a good team,” Adam Gust said. "There’s been a lot of legwork done before I took over. This is my first year. Mike Buringa, obviously left me with a full cupboard. But how much fun was this? The big thing is we get a game off. We get to come back on Thursday and we’re confident we can beat any team.”
St. Charles 3, Zumbrota-Mazeppa 2
No. 2 St. Charles#000#001#2#—#3#6#1
No. 1 Zumbrota-Mazeppa#200#000#0#—#2#5#0
St. Charles: Grace Buringa 1-for-4, 1 R, 1 RBI; Makadyn Gust 2-for-3, 1 R, 1 RBI; Mya Omdahl 1-for-3, RBI; Emmy Kauten 2-for-2. Pitchers: Brenna Koeppel 7 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 10 K
Zumbrota-Mazeppa: Avery Steffen 1-for-4, 1 R; Sydney Higley 1-for-3, 1 HR, 2 RBI; Rianne Buck 2-for-2, 2B; Sarah Mensink 1-for-3 Pitchers: Avery Steffen 7 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 5 K