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Being there before meant a lot to Darcy Roach, St. Scholastica’s junior pitcher, and being there for the fourth time meant that Merryssa Tiedeman, one of only three Saints seniors, wasn’t going to wait around to see if somebody else was going to set the offensive tempo -- and she’s the leadoff hitter.
So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise -- despite all the dramatic evidence leading up to the final game -- when St. Scholastica turned the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference softball tournament championship into a thoroughly anticlimactic 9-0 rout over second seeded Minnesota-Morris.
It’s a tall order to expect St. Scholastica’s softball team to rise up from being the sixth seed, out of six, in the Pella, Iowa, NCAA regional this week, but nothing is impossible for this collection of fighting Saints. It may help them that a year ago they gained the first automatic NCAA Division III berth as the UMA tournament champion, because now they are the second UMAC champ to gain the NCAA tournament. At Pella, the Saints (32-10) run smack into No. 1 seed Luther in Friday’s opening game of the double elimination tournament, while No. 2 seed and host Central College (35-8) plays No. 5 Wisconsin-River Falls (30-13), and No. 3 St. Thomas (37-7) meets No. 4 Coe (34-11).
Working back from last Saturday’s title game at windswept Kenwood Field, the Saints had to face a Morris team that had given them a tough game in a one-run loss the previous week, and a team that had to fight its way back from a first-game loss to win twice just to make it to the title game. True, Morris would have to beat the Saints, then beat them again to claim the title, but that was part of the anticlimax. It was no contest.
“Our kids were ready,” said coach Jen Walter., whose 13th season already is a memorable one. “They’d been here last year, and they went through all this. We have a quiet determination, and we were really ready to go. That’s a real good team we just beat. Merryssa had an unbelievable day; she’s been great since she was a freshman. Our seniors bat 1-2-3, and they really came through.”
Tiedeman, Kali Carlson, and third baseman Theresa Tauer are the only seniors on the club, and they bat 1-2-3. In the title game, Tiedeman led off the last of the first inning with a single, Carlson sacrificed her to second, and Tauer -- who had an amazing day defensively as well -- doubled for the first run. Bonnie Kowalczyk doubled, and Molly Jazdzewski smacked another hit, and it was 4-0. Tiedeman’s second at-bat came in the second inning, and she hammered a three-run home run over the center-field fence to make it 7-0. Her third trip came in the third inning, after a couple more hits put runners on second and third, and Tiedeman drilled another single to drive in two more runs for the 9-0 cushion.
Tiedeman, who is from Zumbrota, went 3-for-3 and drove in a career-high five runs to almost singlehandedly take care of the offense. Roach, meanwhile, almost casually pitched herself out of danger several times, allowing only four hits, and the 9-0 game was called after five innings. The only misplay Roach could be called for was when she and Kowalczyk grabbed the big Gatorade cooler, surreptitiously circled their celebrating teammates and came up behind coach Walter as she was being interviewed on television. As they hefted the big jug, however, they misfired, and Walter could only laugh as she stood there soaked but only from the waist down.
The final game blowout in no way resembled the rest of the tournament. The other stars of the tournament was the Northwestern College team of Roseville, a young team dominated by freshmen and sophomores, who came in as the No. 3 seed but upset Minnesota-Morris 3-0 in the opening game. St. Scholastica then battled Northland College of Ashland 3-3 into the last of the sixth inning, when the Saints erupted for four runs, with Tiedeman’s home run the biggest blow, and Kowalczyk doubling in two more for a 7-3 victory. Morris outscored Northland 17-9 in a bizarre game that eliminated Northland, leaving St. Scholastica to face Northwestern in the final first-day match between first-game winners.
Showing the balance of the Saints lineup, No. 9 hitter Jordan Spiering worked the count to 3-and-2 before smacking a double to give the Saints a 1-0 lead in the last of the second. The Saints went up 4-0 with three more runs in the third inning, with Jazdzewski’s two-run double the big blow. With Roach pitching, that might have seemed sufficient, but Northwestern’s eager Eagles came back for three in the fourth. Kristen Sigurdson got Northwestern going with a line drive opposite-field home run to right, not needing a nasty wind blowing off Lake Superior for help. And Lindsay Deans hit a bases-loaded double in the rally as well.
Briana Rodgers hit another home run off Roach for a 4-4 tie in the fifth, while freshman Molly Johnsen from Floodwood did the pitching against Roach. After all the fireworks before, during and after that game, the outcome was decided in the last of the seventh. Tiedeman -- who else? -- led off with a single, and Shauney Moen went in to run for her, and after she stole second, Carlson dropped a perfect sacrifice bunt down to move her to third. That brought up Theresa Tauer, who took two balls and fouled one back. Then she crossed up the Eagles by laying down a perfect squeeze bunt, and Moen slid home under the throw to win the game 5-4.
“I thought of maybe squeezing the run in, but I wasn’t certain,” said Walters. “I thought Theresa might drive in the run, so I gave her a swing, and after she fouled one off, I decided to call the squeeze.”
Not lost in the drama was that the three seniors who did most of the offensive heavy work in the other games came through with the small-ball tricks under pressure -- Tiedeman with the single, Carlson with the sacrifice, and Tauer with the squeeze bunt.
The wind eased off and the temperature rose about 10 degrees for Saturday, enough so people stopped talking about wind-chill, and Northwestern took the field against Morris, but this time Morris inflicted the 5-4 loss on the Eagles, who went home after two 5-4 losses but having earned everyone’s respect. Being warmed up with the morning victory meant nothing in Morris’s favor, however, when the Saints, rested and ready, exploded early and won their way into the NCAA regional.
UMD’s baseball team went into last weekend in eighth place, and only the top six make the Northern Sun baseball tournament. Last season, and the year before, the Bulldogs made the field on the final day of the regular season. The Bulldogs had a slim chance to pull it off for the third straight time, but they’d have to beat the University of Mary both games of both doubleheaders, Saturday and Sunday at Bulldog Park.
Anders Engberg, a senior from Burnsville, made sure those four games would not be his final ones in a UMD uniform. After the Bulldogs won the opener 3-1, they went into the second game scoreless until the last of the fourth, when Engberg ripped a hard hit, advanced to third on another hit, and scored on a sacrifice fly for a 1-0 lead. It was 2-0 when Engberg socked a two-run home run for a 4-0 victory, as Tyler Blomberg, another senior, pitched the shutout.
On Sunday, the Mary Marauders stormed to a 5-0 lead, but the Bulldogs broke through for a nine-run rally in the fifth inning, with Engberg delivering a two-run double in the process, and UMD won 9-6. That put everything on the line for the final game, and Engberg took the mound to pitch the pivotal game. He also got his second hit in the game in the eighth inning, and scored on Max Ryan’s second hit, and the Bulldogs won 5-4.
The four victories meant that UMD finished 17-18 in NSIC play to claim sixth place on the final day for the third year in a row. That meant nothing, once the NSIC tournament opened in Mankato Wednesday, where UMD had to open with top-seeded MSU-Mankato. But it’s double-elimination, and if being hardened by pressure situations means anything, who knows?
College baseball and softball is a great spectator sport, and Duluth hasn’t seen the last of its share yet. While the St. Scholastica softball team is off trying its luck at the NCAA regional, the Saints baseball team takes over Wade Stadium as host to the UMAC league tournament this weekend. The Saints are favored to win it, and gain the automatic NCAA berth themselves, but it will be worth watching.