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Softball: Nelson in rarefied air

Zumbrota-Mazeppa head coach Kevin Nelson watches an at-bat unfold during the sixth inning of Thursday's game against Lake City in Zumbrota. With the Cougars' 5-4 victory over the Tigers, Nelson became the seventh softball coach in state history with 500 career wins. (Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia)

ZUMBROTA — Coming off the field following a 5-4 Hiawatha Valley League win over Lake City Thursday, Zumbrota-Mazeppa softball coach Kevin Nelson was greeted with five yellow balloons and five packages of Twizzlers from his daughter Megan.

After becoming the eighth softball coach in Minnesota history to reach 500 career wins, Thursday was as good a time to enjoy a celebratory licorice rope.

“That’s my go-to. If I’m going to a ballgame, I’m probably going to have Twizzlers,” said Nelson, whose career record now sits at 500-177. “One package for every hundred wins. It’s better than cake, I guess. I’ll get fat on that.”

Thursday’s win against the Tigers didn’t come easy. Trailing 4-2 after four innings, the Cougars scored a run in the fifth when Lyndsey Quam crossed home on a Tara Matuska grounder. In the sixth, Makayla Arendt hit a sharp grounder to right field that allowed Megan Johnson to score. Then with a grounder up the middle by Taylor Blakstad, Arendt scored the game-winning run.

“Give it to Lake City, they played well. We made some uncharacteristic errors. In the end, we were able to play well enough to win the game,” Nelson said. “You look back over 500 games, we had 10 or 15 other ones where you’re not playing your best game but good teams find a way to win. And this team did. They kept battling.”

And maintaining a good team is what has kept Nelson in the Cougars’ dugout this year, even after winning the Class 2A state championship — Z-M’s first-ever championship — a year ago.

“A lot of people questioned why I came back this year,” Nelson said. “‘Why didn’t you go out on top? You won a state championship, you put 28 years into it. Why do you keep coming back for?’”

It’s because Nelson wants to make sure the day he steps down, Z-M can maintain its place as a small-school powerhouse. From personal experience, he reminds himself of his stint as the Cougars’ wrestling coach from 1990-99.

“To be honest with you, I had a successful program in the ‘90s. We got to the state tourney four times (in 1992, 95, 96, 98),” Nelson said. “I left the program and I let the school decide who they were going to hire, and that program went through some hard times. They dropped back to an average team in the area and we were the elite.”

The ultimate goal is to be able to see the program prosper when he can step away and watch Z-M softball in the stands with licorice in hand.

Nelson said, “I’m not in it for myself or to get 500 wins. I’m in it for the kids to have a successful program.”

Here are the other coaches who have surpassed the 500-win mark (as of Thursday)

Bob Mertz (New Ulm Cathedral) 780

Pat Bowlin (Winona Cotter; St. Bernard’s) 697

Tom Bang (Hermantown) 664

Neil Johnson (Shakopee) 550

Mary Beth Holmberg (Morris Area/C-A) 544

Charles Whitbred III (Park) 525

Steve Hoffmann (Minnewaska) 501

Kevin Nelson (Zumbrota-Mazeppa; Windom) 500

Joe Brown

Joe Brown is the sports editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, he worked at the Marshall Independent and the St. Cloud Times. For updates on local sports, follow Joe on Twitter at @RE_JBrown.

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