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Always in play: Matuska is 2017 POY

Zumbrota-Mazeppa shortstop Tara Matuska lunges forward for a pop out on June 9 during the Class 2A state championship game against Maple Lake at Caswell Park in North Mankato. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 5
Zumbrota-Mazeppa’s Tara Matuska is the 2017 All-Area softball player of the year.2 / 5
Zumbrota-Mazeppa's Tara Matuska sets to fire a pitch. (Photo by Joe Brown)3 / 5
Z-M's Tara Matuska steps up to the plate for an at-bat in the Class 2A state championship game against Maple Lake on June 9 in North Mankato. Joe Brown / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 5
Zumbrota-Mazeppa's Tara Matuska fields a ground ball during the Cougars' Game 1 win over Rochester Lourdes on June 1. Z-M also won Game 2 to win the Section 1AA championship to earn a berth in the Class 2A state tournament. Kyle Stevens / Rivertown Multimedia5 / 5

Twelve. In three years, Tara Matuska struck out a dozen times. In 277 at-bats.

Twelve. How does that happen?

"That one I can't answer," said Tara's father, Mike said. "But I know it wasn't me. I set the tone in how to strike out when I was a senior. I had 28 strikeouts in one season. I remember the coach gave me a bat that was broken in half as an award. He said 'I don't think you need the whole thing.' It's great hand-eye coordination, but it's not something I gave her."

The ability to make contact is certainly a large part of not striking out, but, there is also the desire to simply want to get a hit. Matuska, Zumbrota-Mazeppa's shortstop and pitcher and the 2017 Republican Eagle Player of the Year, walked even less than she struck out. Eleven times in her career, Matuska saw four balls in an at-bat.

The simple math (with three hit-by-pitch results as well as five sacrifices) says Matuska had 296 career plate appearances. In 270 of those, the ball was put in play. It's quite remarkable.

"I guess I was never looking for a walk," Tara said. "Swinging the bat, I'd get the timing down by the third pitch, and I wouldn't miss. I'd at least hit it. I wouldn't miss three times."

As astonishing as that number is — especially when one considers the level of play in the Hiawatha Valley League and Section 1AA, and that Tara faced two Division I pitchers as a sophomore — it was equally as stunning seeing the Cougars repeat as Class 2A state champions this spring.

The best team in school history was probably the 2015 group, one that was swept in the section championship by Kasson-Mantorville after beating the KoMets earlier in the tournament. Last year's roster was still pretty good, but also led by Morgan Olson's left arm.

This year? There were no plans to be in North Mankato in June.

"The whole time, no one really had it in their mind that we'd do it," Tara said. "But beating Lourdes, twice in a row, we knew that's who we'd have to beat and how we played was how we'd have to play to beat them. And then we just kept playing like that."

That may have been a late turning point for the team. But one does not have to look far to see that Tara's impact was felt on day one. After debuting as a starter in the outfield her sophomore year, Tara moved to first base as a junior. Those two positions were completely new to a player who pitched and played shortstop in junior high and on JV.

Tara's senior season would be her last, and it did not come with much expectation. But Kevin Nelson has built a program that wins. And to do so, he needed Tara to move again.

"By the way, you're going to play different positions this year, and two very important ones," Nelson said, recalling the conversation. "It's your third and fourth positions at the varsity level, and you'll learn during the season."

It was a lot to ask, but there's a reason Nelson never hesitated.

"Her ability to adjust, every year, to work her butt off, that's what made her better and made the team better," Nelson said. "She's a great example for kids. She's not vocal, she's very quiet. But she's productive, and she didn't care where she played."

Up until the state tournament, Tara and Lyndsey Quam split pitching duties evenly, with Tara finishing with a 10-3 record with a 1.52 ERA, 117 strikeouts and 40 walks. Quam pitched all three games in North Mankato, throwing an effectively wild final that saw 20 balls put in play.

That meant the defense had to be up to the task, and it was. Notably Tara, who had just three errors in 80 chances this year, and was a perfect 8-for-8 in her final game.

But no matter the position, Tara was in the lineup, closing out 2017 with a .439 average, an on-base percentage of .490, and a slugging percentage of .602, thanks to 10 doubles and two home runs. There were also 30 RBI, 10 stolen bases and four walks. Oh, and a pair of strikeouts to match her long balls.

"It's an awesome feeling," Tara said of her being the player of the year. "It makes it seems like it was worth working for."

That work began years ago, with her father and her sister, Jackie, along for all or most of the ride. There are two state championships that will forever grace a hallway in the high school, and will be noted on the backstop at the softball field.

But only one Cougar got to share it with her father.

"The last game, I looked over at Kevin, and we were so excited about all the work paying off for these girls," Mike said. "But it's really special coaching your children. It's very, very hard to think I'm not involved in summer softball anymore. But it's so rewarding to see all the work she put in the last 10 years come to a point where all of these girls got a state championship."

And in the years to come, Tara, who is heading to Minnesota State, Mankato to major in exercise science, it's the reward she'll share as her last on a softball field.

"The night after, you're still on a high," Tara said. "(But now), it's like, well, we did it."

Kyle Stevens
Kyle Stevens is a sports reporter for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, Kyle worked at the Owatonna People’s Press, as well as KWLM and KLFN in Willmar. You can contact Kyle by phone at (651) 301-7879, via e-mail at kstevens@republican-eagle.com, and follow him on Twitter @RE_KStevens.
(651) 301-7879
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