AUSTIN — Zumbrota-Mazeppa has too much of a winning DNA to give up without a fight.
St. Charles may be too young to know any better.
The Saints didn't show any nerves on a big stage, though, recovering from a loss in Game 1 of the Section 1AA softball championships to beat Z-M 3-2 in the decisive second game and earn the program's first trip to the state softball tournament.
St. Charles (22-4) will begin play at state on Tuesday in North Mankato.
Z-M superstar pitcher Avery Steffen put the Cougars on her back with a complete-game shutout to stave off elimination in Thursday's opener. The Zumbrota-Mazeppa 4-0 victory over St. Charles forced the second game, as Z-M needed to defeat St. Charles twice to win the double-elimination tournament, while St. Charles needed just one victory to win the section title.
Z-M took an early 2-0 lead in Game 2 and St. Charles looked like it was in danger. But time and time again, the young Saints — who have seven underclassmen in their starting lineup — refused to go quietly. This time, in the biggest of moments, freshman Mya Omdahl delivered the biggest hit of her high school career with a bases-clearing double to give St. Charles a 3-2 lead in the third inning.
As the crucial seventh inning approached, the tension rose higher and higher even though the score remained the same. St. Charles sophomore pitcher Brenna Koeppel continued to put up zeroes, but there was a feeling that a Z-M rally could right around the corner. The Cougars had just three more outs to play with and the St. Charles fans were on the edge of their seats. Parents were pacing. Grandparents were praying. Athletic Director Scott McCready couldn’t find a place to stand so he started walking up and down behind the first-base dugout, hoping for three more outs.
Koeppel fanned Sarah Mensink. Two outs away.
Koeppel struck out Maddie O’Reilly. One out away.
But in stepped Steffen. The most dangerous hitter in the Z-M lineup. The St. Charles coaching staff went back and forth on whether to pitch to the Cougars leadoff hitter who had belted two doubles and scored two runs already in the game. They decided to pitch carefully to Steffen before eventually conceding and intentionally walking her. It put the tying run on base and with Steffen’s incredible speed, she was just one stolen base away from being in scoring position.
Koeppel knew she had to retire Lola Wagner because the powerful Sydney Higley was on deck. Wagner fought off multiple tough pitches with two strikes and the St. Charles parents were checking their heart rates. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Wagner made contact and stroked a liner right up the middle. But it didn’t get into the outfield. Instead, Koeppel stuck her glove out and snared the smash.
For the first time in school history, St. Charles os headed to the Class AA state tournament.
"I just caught it and then all the hugs just came,” Koeppel said. “I can’t even describe it.”
The pendulum of emotions was evident because at the very same time that the St. Charles coaching staff, players and fans erupted in cheers and hugs, Steffen was wiping tears away, realizing that her decorated Zumbrota-Mazeppa career was over.
“They’ve been our rivals forever,” Koeppel said. "We look up to Avery a lot. They’re really good."
But for St. Charles? The Saints hope they have a few more chapters to write at the state tournament. The young Saints have a special team and a special bond and connection.
"This is an amazing feeling,” Omdahl said. "We’re all just really close. We’re family, to be honest. Our fans helped a ton. You don’t expect a bunch of people to come out to a softball game. We felt their energy tonight.”
First-year coach Adam Gust didn’t hold back his true feelings with his team. He told them that they were the best team in the tournament and that they could beat anyone. His team bought into that mantra.
Freshman Makadyn Gust delivered clutch hits and played a terrific center field. Koeppel is only a sophomore and while she’s slight in stature, she’s tough in the circle. Omdahl delivered the big hit on Thursday and was outstanding defensively at shortstop. Sophomore Lauryn Delger made a diving catch at third base. Sophomore Emmy Kauten is a player and senior DJ Berg has exceeded all expectations this year and has been an on-base machine. Sophomore Grace Buringa was fabulous behind the plate and delivered at the top of the order, while Berg and fellow senior Jade Krenik have been steadying forces all year long who've done whatever the team needs to win.
The Saints have something special both in the here and now and for the foreseeable future.
“We have two seniors who are dynamite players who’ve been clutch,” Adam Gust said. "These young girls, they play ball together all summer. Brenna pitches in this heat and just keeps pumping. We had a lot of confidence that she’d do it tonight. When you have a great pitcher like Brenna, you’re going to be competitive and then we had some diving plays defensively.”
Now a trip to state awaits.
"We made it this far," Berg said. "Why don't we just win it all?"
St. Charles 3, Zumbrota-Mazeppa 2
No. 1 Zumbrota-Mazeppa#101#000#0#—#2#5#1
No. 2 St. Charles#003#000#0#—#2#6#0
St. Charles: Makadyn Gust 2-for-3, 1 R; Grace Buringa 1 R; Lauryn Delger 1-for-3 Mya Omdahl 2-for-3, 2B, 3 RBI; Eva Anderson 1-for-3 Pitchers: Brenna Koeppel 7 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 6 K
Zumbrota-Mazeppa: Avery Steffen 2-for-2, 2 R, 2 2B, SB; Sydney Higley 1-for-3, 1 RBI; Matti Stensland 1-for-3, 1 RBI; Addie Voxland 1-for-3 Pitchers: Avery Steffen 6 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 6 K