Softball: Z-M comes back to win section championship
AUSTIN — The dugout was on the other side, most of the names on the lineup card were different, and the overall sense that history was about to be made was different.
But Zumbrota-Mazeppa doesn't like different. The Cougars don't want change. The Section 1AA championship game is where they belong. And on Thursday, Z-M, the defending state champion and definite underdog, toppled top-seeded and second-ranked Rochester Lourdes twice, both times by a score of 7-2.
The Cougars had to win five-straight elimination games after the Eagles sent 10th-ranked Z-M to the loser's bracket on May 26. And though the team did not have a lot of experience to draw on, the message from head coach Kevin Nelson to the Cougars was simple.
"It was an easy discussion. All I had to do was mention 2015. We beat Kasson(-Mantorville) in the sub-section, and they came back and beat us in two games," Nelson said. "What an unbelievable accomplishment to come back against a really good team. I told people (Lourdes) is good enough to win the state championship. Their defense is that good. Their defense is that good. Their pitching is good. I said I don't know if we're good enough to win a state championship. But it's sure going to be fun to go back and find out."
In the regular season, the Eagles won 4-0, then duplicated the score again in the playoffs. But Z-M had one advantage: the stage. Lourdes has no state appearances while the Cougars are going back for the fifth time since 2008.
"They hadn't been here. They hadn't accomplished this. Granted, we only have three girls that played on last year's team. That's it," Nelson said. "But we've been there. They've been on the bench, been to state tournament games. I think that's a difference. Being under pressure and how you react. We try to simulate that, and look at our schedule. I'd like to find a team that played our schedule this year. Teams would play us this year because they knew we wouldn't be very good. They wouldn't play us in the past because we had Morgan (Olson). So we got good teams to compete against, and we got beat by good teams. There was nothing we saw here today that we didn't see all season."
Both games were similar, even outside the final score. The common theme was the Eagles making errors, and Z-M taking advantage.
In Game 1, two Lourdes miscues led to four first-inning Cougar runs, including two on a Natalye Quam double. In the second, Z-M led off with back-to-back hits, and then scored three-straight runs on ground balls.
The Eagles didn't send more than four batters to the plate until the fourth, then they left the bases loaded. In the fifth, Lourdes left two on. The sixth saw the Eagles score a run after a leadoff double, and another run came across in the seventh thanks to a Z-M error.
But Lourdes' stellar defense had let it down. And it was going to happen again.
"We hit some gaps, and Lourdes made some mistakes which they haven't all year," Cougars' pitcher Lyndsey Quam said. "Every time we got a hit, we got more pumped up and it made the next person want to do the same. It was awesome."
Game 2 opened with two Z-M runs, including one when a sacrifice bunt led to an air-mailed throw over the first baseman's head. The Eagles answered with a run, taking advantage of a walk. The second was scoreless before the Cougars made it 3-1 with three-straight hits in the third.
Lyndsey Quam cruised until the fifth, and was still good, where she gave up a run on a walk, a single and an error. Of course, that came after two more Lourdes' errors in the top of the fifth gave Z-M its fourth run.
An uneventful sixth had the Cougars up 4-2, and, with the bats in their hands, the chance to take all the drama out of the final inning.
After a strikeout to begin the top of the seventh, three-straight walks loaded the bases. Hannah Mensink grounded out, but got an RBI. Then, Makayla Arendt singled home a run, as did Rylee Schliep. A five-run lead gave Lyndsey more than enough support, but she made sure to slam the door with a 1-2-3 inning.
"The coaches expect a lot," Lyndsey said. "Coming in this season, we knew we'd miss the seniors from last year. But we grew a lot and we developed and overcame a lot of obstacles to win the section."
Watching the players pour onto the field was expected. Seeing Nelson jumping and yelling and giving his assistants bear hugs was not. There was the feeling there was more to it than winning two games and getting back to the state tournament.
"It doesn't matter what sport it is, when you're the champion, there's something that goes along with it. It's hard to beat the champion," Nelson said.
And it's not just the coach that takes issue.
"I've heard people say we can't do it without Morgan (Olson)," Majerus said. " And I said 'We'll show you what we've got.' It's not a person, it's a team."
Change is inevitable, players graduate and new faces have to step up. But every name that comes through wants to make sure that Olson or Majerus or Quam is just as known as Zumbrota-Mazeppa.
"It just shows that we have depth," Quam said. "We just have to approach state like we did today. Be aggressive and don't be afraid to make a mistake."