June 14, 2018 at 3:18 p.m.
But, once they got to the state championship game, they ran into top-seeded Faribault and the buzzsaw pitching of McKayla Armbruster. North Branch fell 2-0 to the Falcons, but it was still a memorable run for the girls and the community of North Branch that rallied around them.
North Branch 12, Academy of Holy Angels 0 (5 innings)
Even the most optimistic of North Branch fans, and there were plenty of them in the crowd for the opening game, couldn’t have expected such a thorough domination at the state tournament when the Vikings took on Holy Angels Academy on Thursday, June 7.
Despite having an elite ace in Sam Pederson and a high-powered offense, the competition figured to be a bit better at Caswell Park in North Mankato on Thursday, June 7.
But, North Branch quickly showed they would not be intimidated by the moment. Pederson struck out the first two batters for Holy Angels before coaxing a meek ground ball out for the third out.
She kept her momentum rolling by singling to lead off the bottom of the first inning. Amber Yoch attempted to sacrifice Pederson over to second base with a bunt, but she ended up with a hit, leading to three-hole hitter Katie Berg ripping a two-run double for the first runs of the game. Berg proceeded to steal third base before senior first baseman Cassie Sinn singled to drive her in. Sinn found herself all the way on third base when her hit skipped past the right fielder for an error. Macy Brodin knocked out a single, scoring Sinn, and giving the Vikings an early 4-0 lead.
“I think the turning point for our girls during this game was the fan power. We were so fortunate to have our superintendent (Dr. Deb Henton), our entire school board, and athletic department allow, support, and provide our entire education staff to leave on a coach bus and make it for this first game,” Head Coach Kathy Crudo said, referring to the fact that due to some construction parking issues and the magnitude of the game, district employees who still have workshop days were given leave to attend the tournament. “State is the biggest stage these girls have ever played on. The caliber of teams, collegiate coaches, and 32 teams from all sections. There’s a large amount of people watching and in attendance at any given point of the game. If anyone (which was most of the North Branch community) was there, they could have looked around and seen our game flooded by a “Red Sea” as many would call it. We had so much fan support which made it easy for our girls to play their game, comfortably and confident surrounded by all familiar faces and a ton of “SKOL” chants.”
Pederson used that energy and buzzed through the Stars’ lineup in the second inning, getting the hot NB offense back to the plate, and they didn’t disappoint.
Liz Gladitsch led off the inning with a walk and Pederson followed that up with a single. Yoch knocked both of them in with a double. After Berg grounded out, Sinn singled, scoring Yoch.
The start couldn’t have been any better for North Branch, as they led 7-0 after two innings, and Pederson was buzzing along. She allowed her first hit to the Stars to lead off the third inning, but she promptly struck out the next two batters and induced a grounder to the first baseman for the last out.
The cavalcade of hits continued in the third inning for NB. Heather Kost, Kristi Pilz, Pederson, Yoch, Berg, Sinn and Sophie Smith all reached in the inning, leading to five runs on six hits and two errors.
The Stars had their biggest threat of the game in the fourth when they got a hit, a walk and a North Branch error, but they couldn’t cash in a run, and at that point, it was pretty academic for the Vikings. They loaded the bases up in the bottom of the fourth but didn’t score. Pederson had a clean slate in the fifth inning, ending the game by mercy rule at 12-0 in favor of the Vikings.
Pederson, Yoch, Berg and Sinn combined to go nine-for-14 in the game with nine runs and eight RBIs.
“The girls came out swinging, and were aggressive on the base paths,’ Crudo explained.
The Vikings had 15 hits in five innings, and also had seven stolen bases. Every hitter in the lineup got a hit and Pederson and catcher Emma Hurd were in sync as battery mates. “The all around effort and performance by the girls was amazing,” Crudo said.
North Branch 3, Hill Murray 1
This game was a stark contrast to the opener for the Vikings. They lost the coin flip for being the home team, so they led off in the top of the first inning. The top of the lineup that was so potent in the first game went down in order against Pioneer pitcher Jayna Witzany. But, Pederson returned the favor in the bottom half of the inning, retiring the Hill Murray hitters with just one hit batsmen in between. “This was a pitchers duel. Both girls were experienced in getting out of jams and leaving baserunners on,” Crudo said.
Witzany and Pederson remained in a duel until the bottom of the fourth inning when Hill struck first.
Their lead off hitter reached on a throwing error by Pederson. An error by third baseman Kost on the ensuing bunt left runners at second and third with no outs. The next better was hit by a pitch to load the bases with zero outs.
Witzany hit into a tough play behind Pederson, and she reached, giving Hill Murray one run in but still with the bases loaded an zero outs.
That’s when Pederson buckled down and had her biggest sequence of the tournament. She struck out the next batter for the first out before getting the next girl to line out to Sinn at first base. It kept everyone at their bases and left Pederson one out away from getting out of the jam. She struck out catcher Lyndsey Snyder to end the inning, letting out a large roar in excitement.
The Vikings wasted no time answering back. Pilz got things started with a one-out single to centerfield. Gladtisch bunted, attempting to move Pilz over, but Pilz was gunned down by Witzany, leaving the Vikes in a pickle. Head Coach Kathy Crudo trusted Gladitsch and got aggressive on the basepaths. She stole second base, getting into scoring position. Pederson drew a walk, but that was more Witzany being careful with Pederson with an open first base.
Yoch made them pay, singling through the right side of the infield, scoring Gladitsch and tying the game. Yoch was thrown out trying to advance to second, but the clutch hit was what she was looking for.
After Pederson shut down the Pioneers in the bottom of the fifth, North Branch took their first lead of the game in the sixth. Berg led off the inning with a single and Sinn moved her up with a sacrifice bunt. Sophie Smith reached on an error by the Hill shortstop and Berg moved to third base. Brodin delivered the go-ahead RBI, knocking a single out and scoring Berg and moving up to second on the throw home. A single by Kost scored Brodin, putting NB up 3-1.
Pederson again locked up the Pioneers in the sixth inning, and the Vikings threatened in the top of the seventh, but Gladtisch was thrown out at home to end the inning with no runs. It all came down to Pederson getting three more outs for the Vikings, and they’d be playing for the state championship against Faribault, who had already won their way in.
And it was not an easy three outs. Pederson allowed a single and a double to open the inning, putting herself in a precarious position with runners on second and third and zero outs. But, she made a brilliant play in the field to partially get out of the pickle. The next batter hit a comebacker to Pederson and she turned to throw the runner out at first base, but, it was a fake throw that deked the runner on third, and Pederson quickly turned and fired behind the runner. Kost slapped a tag on the stranded runner, and Pederson turned a second and third and zero out situation into a first and second with one out spot, which was much more manageable.
To make the play even more important, the next Hill Murray hitter roped a single up the middle, loading the bases again with just one out, but Pederson’s heads up play from the last batter certainly saved at least one run.
Amber Peterson was the next hitter for Hill Murray, and she hit one on a line, but it settled right into Sinn’s glove at first base, putting NB just one out away from the championship game. Anna Newton, Hill’s three-hole hitter, was up next with the game on the line. She put a charge in the ball that had the North Branch crowd holding their collective breath for a bit, but centerfielder Berg tracked the ball down and made the game clinching catch to send the Vikings into state championship game.
Yoch and Berg both went two-for-four for NB and Brodin and Kost went one-for-three and each had an RBI. Pederson went seven innings, allowing just five hits and one run, which was unearned. She struck out 11 and walked none in the sterling performance.
“Hill-Murray was a solid team. They made things happen and put pressure on us and made plays that kept us from busting out more runs,” Crudo said. “Sam did her job on the mound and along with Hurd did a nice job of getting out of jams and overpowering them with strikeouts when needed. This was probably the best game of the tournament on any field played and I was proud of our girls composure.”
Faribault 2, North Branch 0
The win set up a duel with the top-ranked Faribault Falcons. They also rode an ace to the title game, as McKayla Armbruster had thrown a no-hitter to open the tournament against Bemidji, and then she piched them past fourth-seeded Winona in the second round. Armbruster throws a deadly riseball, and that’s not a type of pitcher the Vikings have seen all year.
The game seemingly was going to go to the first team to score, and unfortunately for the red-and-white faithful, that was Faribault. The Falcons scored in the bottom of the first inning on a bit of a fluke. Allison Schak led off the game with a double putting the pressure on NB early.
After she timed up Pederson, Schak took off for third base on a steal attempt. Catcher Emma Hurd’s throw was a hint behind the runner and it ricocheted off of Schak’s helmet and into left field as Schak scurried home for the first run of the game. Pederson got the next three outs easily, and would’ve stranded Schak at third if not for the ricochet.
In the fourth inning, Faribault threatened with runners on first and third with one out, but when the next batter tried to bunt, Pederson made another wonderful play, throwing the advancing runner out at home as Hurd blocked the plate. Pederson struck out the next batter to get out of the inning.
North Branch put together their only offensive threat in the fifth inning. Sinn ripped a double to the gap in right center. It might have been a triple. but the fences used at Caswell Park are temporary and the ball rolled right through the bottom of the fence, making it a ground rule double.
That was important, as Smith grounded out in the next at bat, moving Sinn to third base with just one out. Had she been standing on third, the result may have been different. Armbruster got Brodin to foul out to the catcher and Kost struck out looking to end the Viking threat. “This is one of those games where you wish you had a few more innings to play. We were taking better at bats each time we came up and started to make better contact, but we just took too long to get our line up turned over. They made every play on defense and we just didn’t catch any of the breaks,” Crudo explained.
In the sixth, Faribault added an insurance run when North Branch commited two errors around a walk. The Falcons got the run with zero hits in the inning.
Armbruster sat the Vikings down in order in the top of the seventh to claim Faribault’s first ever state title in softball and deny the Vikings theirs.
Sinn was the only Viking to get a hit off of Armbruster, and Pederson, who had a heck of a game herself, was saddled with the loss. She went six innings and gave up five hits and two runs, only one earn. She struck out eight Falcons and walked just one. “Sam pitched a heck of a game for us,” Crudo said. “Faribault was clutch when they had their runners on and were able to pinch two runs off of three hits, that’s flat out execution.”
The Vikings ended their season with a 25-3 record, best in school history. They will be graduating six seniors, all of whom played an important role this year. Crudo has been coaching in some form with them since they were sophomores, and she couldn’t say enough about the impact the girls had on their teammates and the program as a whole.
“They all brought something different in terms of leadership, personality, and type of play. They all were able to lead by example and suck in the underclassmen. They started this from day one of spring break practices. Most seniors would be the last to grab equipment, last to pick up, set up, etc; these seniors took everything and everyone under their wing and were always the first to do something,” the head coach explained. “Though they all played most of the games, their play isn’t what will be missed the most. It is hands down their leadership and their drive to keep everyone wanting the same goal each and every day. They collected a ton of accolades together from athletic to academic and they would have traded every single award for one more win at the end, that’s what makes them so special, is their selflessness. This season is truly their legacy and is the start of what’s to come for North Branch. A quote I think about for our seniors is, “There are wolves that lead sheep, then there are wolves that lead wolves”. Our wolves (seniors) truly treated everyone equally and led them to become leaders themselves. You could tell that within our offense every game. We had a solid one through nine and even three others who would have been contributors if we were allowed to play with 12 in the lineup. Our seniors instilled this type of mentality into our whole program. They expected everyone to perform. They expected growth every single day. They were never handed any award. They started from the bottom and took the challenge to rise. The heart and passion each one of these girls gave was contagious. I, along with the other coaches, community, and years to come fastpitch players of NB, can’t thank them enough for quite literally leaving everything on the field or in the gym each and every day.”