The St. Charles softball team is going to the state tournament for the first time in school history.
Seven Saints starters are either freshmen or sophomores.
The young nucleus is talented enough that the Saints could be a Section 1AA title contender for the foreseeable future. But Saints' head coach Adam Gust doesn't want to think about the future. He and the Saints' players are locked in on the here and now.
"This is a really special team," Gust said.
The Saints and their first-year head coach are on one heck of a ride after the Saints took down powerhouse Zumbrota-Mazeppa by beating the Cougars two times in a span of three days last week in the Section 1AA tournament. Both times, St. Charles rallied out of 2-0 holes and pulled off dramatic 3-2 wins.
St. Charles' rise to the top of Section 1AA took time and a year-round effort.
"There’s been a lot of legwork done before I took over," Gust said. "Mike Buringa obviously left me with a full cupboard."
Throughout the summers, most of the Saints have played together. Thousands of pitches. Hundreds of innings. Dozens of games. One united, tight team.
"We’re all just really close," freshman shortstop Mya Omdahl said. "We’re a family, to be honest."
That family-oriented environment stretches far beyond just the players. Gust has the privilege of coaching and watching his daughter, Makadyn, a superstar who Gust calls 'one heck of a hitter.' Even though Makadyn is leading the team in hitting (.453 batting average, 37 runs scored, three home runs, four triples, 12 doubles, 22 RBIs, 16 stolen bases), she might be an even better defensive player, patrolling center field for St. Charles.
In the heat of the moment, it's hard for Gust to take his 'coach' hat off and just enjoy being a dad, but after the Section 1AA championship win over Zumbrota-Mazeppa, he made sure to take a picture with his daughter. It's a moment they won't ever forget.
The Gusts and the Saints don't want the Section 1AA championship to be the best moment of the year, though. They have bigger things they hope to accomplish at the Class AA state tournament. They'll open play at state at 1 p.m. Tuesday at against Mounds Park Academy at Caswell Park in North Mankato.
“State is going to be a lot of competition but we all work well together," sophomore pitcher Brenna Koeppel said. "We have big things ahead of us."
Koeppel has been standout all year long. St. Charles is 22-4 this season thanks to the fact that runs are at a premium when Koeppel is in the circle. She is 17-2 with a 1.76 ERA with 170 strikeouts in 119 1/3 innings. She's only walked 28 of the 545 hitters that she's faced this season. Koeppel's riseball and changeup generate a ton of swings and misses. Even though she's only a sophomore, Koeppel has the mindset and demeanor of a grizzled veteran.
Throughout the section playoffs, when Zumbrota-Mazeppa would get runners in scoring position and momentum started to grow, Koeppel rose to the occasion, threw even better pitches and became even tougher to hit against.
"When you have a great pitcher like Brenna, you’re going to be competitive," Gust said. "She’s really good at missing in a good way. She doesn’t miss over the plate."
Talent can take teams a long way, and the Saints are full of it. They've also bought into their roles seamlessly. Senior first-baseman DJ Berg is cool with hitting in the 9-spot. When runners get on base, she's not afraid to drop down a bunt. Sophomore Grace Buringa always is eager to get behind the plate; she catches with infectious energy.
Up and down the lineup, the Saints are ready to compete when their time is called. In the Section 1AA final four, Buringa delivered the game-tying double in the top of the seventh inning against Z-M's All-State standout pitcher Avery Steffen, but it was Emmy Kauten who got the inning started with a walk and she was in scoring position because of Berg's sacrifice bunt. Makadyn Gust delivered the game-winning RBI double one batter later.
In Thursday's win-or-go-home showdown against Zumbrota-Mazeppa, it was freshman Mya Omdahl who came up clutch with a bases-clearing double to give St. Charles a 3-2 lead.
Adam Gust doesn't just have to lean on one or two hitters to produce. Makadyn Gust has been terrific all year long, but No. 3 hitter Lauryn Delger is also hitting .379 with three homers and a team-high 30 RBIs, and she's stolen 11 bases. Omdahl has transitioned to varsity softball without a hitch (.367 average, 20 RBIs). Buringa has nine extra-base hits this year, too, and has scored 30 runs. Senior Jade Krenik has been a valuable No. 2 pitcher while also hitting .350 to go along with flawless defense in left field.
“I don’t really know what to expect at state," Berg said. "We’ve never done this before but this team is special.”
With seven starters in line to start for the next two years at the very least, this week might not be the last time that the Saints head to state. Trips to the state tournament are special, though, and the Saints want to make this chance count because there's no guarantee it'll happen again. Section 1AA is way too tough every single year.
So while the future looks bright for St. Charles, the present is also. And the young Saints don't plan on slowing down anytime soon.
St. Charles' projected starting lineup
C Grace Buringa, So.
CF Makadyn Gust, Fr.
3B Lauryn Delger, So.
LF Jade Krenik, Sr.
SS Mya Omdahl, Fr.
2B Eva Anderson, So.
P Brenna Koeppel, So.
RF Emmy Kauten, So.
1B DJ Berg, Sr.
CLASS AA STATE TOURNAMENT
Caswell Park, Mankato
Tuesday, June 15
(All games at 1 p.m.)
No. 1 LeSueur-Henderson (21-1) vs. No. 8 Hawley (24-2)
No. 4 Greenway (25-0) vs. No. 5 Annandale (23-2)
No. 2 Maple Lake (22-3) vs. No. 7 Pipestone (25-3)
No. 3 St. Charles (22-4) vs. No. 6 Mounds Park Academy (19-0)
Caswell Park, Mankato
Tuesday, June 15
(All games at 7 p.m.)
LeSueur-Henderson/Hawley winner vs. Greenway/Annandale winner
Maple Lake/Pipestone winner vs. St. Charles/Mounds Park Academy winner
Caswell Park, Mankato
Wednesday, June 16
Third-place game, 10 a.m.
Championship game, 12 p.m.