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GAME OF THE WEEK (WIAA Softball D5 State Championship): Belmont 7, Blair–Taylor 1
Braves strike gold at Goodman Diamond
Belmont state SB title 6-12-19
Belmont raises the state championship trophy after winning the WIAA Division 5 state softball title with a 7–1 victory over Blair–Taylor on Saturday, June 8. - photo by Photo by Tom Gunnell / Republican Journal

GAME OF THE WEEK (June 6–June 12)
MADISON — Belmont left Goodman Diamond two years ago disappointed following a tough 5–4 loss in its state semifinal game. The Braves left Goodman Diamond Saturday morning as champions.  

Second-seeded Belmont broke open a scoreless stalemate by scoring six runs in the top of the sixth inning and went on to knock off top-seeded Blair–Taylor 7–1, to claim the WIAA Division 5 softball championship.

“It was great to get here two years ago, but this is way better because we have the state title in our hands,” said senior catcher Abby Althaus, one of three seniors — the others pitcher Sadie Willborn and shortstop Nikki Knebel — who started on the 2017 state team. “I’m so proud of this team. I couldn’t be any happier than I am right now.”

The Braves finished the season 26–1 and brought home the program’s second state title and fourth state trophy in seven appearances at state. Belmont won the Division 4 title in 2002, and was D4 runner-up in 2003 and 2006. The Wildcats, making their third straight state appearance, ended the year 28–1 for their second runner-up trophy in the past three seasons.

“We beat a really good Blair–Taylor team. We have a lot of respect for that team. Their coach does a great job. It feels good to sneak by them,” said Belmont head coach Jeff Hodgson, who has led the Braves to each of their state appearances. “We won by doing the things we do well. Whoever turned the game [in their favor] first was probably going to win it. We were all sitting on pins and needles until it turned for us first. I hope our kids always set their sights at the highest prize, and they did. To get here and win it feels satisfying. We did this because of the quality of our seniors.”

Willborn, Althaus and Knebel, along with seniors Callie Douglas, Bridgett Miesen and Cassidy Caley, went 95–18 during their varsity playing careers with four Six Rivers West championship titles, three regional titles, two sectional titles and one state title.

“How this game went is who we are,” said Hodgson. “Sadie and Abby are going to keep us in the game until we came around. And then, when we come around and get the ball rolling, we can roll over people.”

Blair–Taylor junior pitcher Lauren Steien was perfect the first time through the Belmont order and continued to hold the Braves scoreless through the first five innings. Willborn was just as impressive in the pitcher’s circle, limiting the Wildcats to just one hit and two base runners though five scoreless innings of her own.

The game turned on an error with one out in the top of the sixth inning when ninth-hitter Miesen reached on a wild throw by Wildcats shortstop Danyelle Waldera.

Willborn singled, and then sophomore second baseman Peyton Johnson laid down a perfect slap bunt to move the runners. The throw to first sailed into right field, allowing Miesen to score the game’s first run, and an errant throw home moved the runners up a base.

“It’s a fundamental,” said Hodgson. “We won by our fundamentals. We start on the first day with bunting.”

Knebel followed with a clutch two-run single to make it 3-0, and Althaus put down a well-placed squeeze bunt to drive in Knebel for a 4–0 lead. Junior first baseman McKenzie Rueter brought in junior outfielder Ashley Knebel with a sacrifice fly, and freshman pinch runner Lauren Helms scored on Blair–Taylor’s fourth error of the inning to extend the advantage to 6–0.

“Once you get that first run in you think you can make that stand up,” said Hodgson. “Then we got the base hit that drove in two more runs and you’re pretty sure you can make it stand up. We just kept piling it on. That’s how we are.”

Blair–Taylor scored its only run in the bottom of the sixth inning on an RBI double by Lauren Kidd. Willborn settled down to get the final two outs of the inning, and then helped get the run back by opening the seventh with a single. Johnson followed with her record-setting second double of the game to drive in freshman courtesy runner Ashley Freeman to push the lead back to six at 7–1. 

Johnson set D5 records with her two doubles in the game, and three doubles for the tournament. Those were just two of the 17 individual and 26 team D5 single-game and tournament records set or tied by the Braves during their state title run.

Steien led off the Wildcats’ seventh with a single to give her team some hope, but Willborn registered a groundball out, a strikeout and a pop out to Althaus to finish off the ‘Cats and kick off the raucous Belmont celebration.

“It was the best feeling ever,” said Althaus. “I knew I had it and I’m like, ‘Sadie, I’m coming for you.”

“We knew something was coming, and then we got those six runs,” said Willborn, who ended her Braves career at 73–11, including 13–3 in the playoffs. “It was incredible. We could relax and that’s when we play our best. It feels amazing. I am so proud of my team. We played the very best we have all season.”

Willborn (26–1) got the complete-game win, allowing one unearned run on four hits and two walks with four strikeouts. She helped her own cause by going 2-for-4 at the plate with Freeman scoring twice while running in her place.

Johnson added two hits with a pair of doubles and she had one RBI and a run scored. Nikki Knebel drove in two and scored once, while Althaus went 2-for-3 with a RBI for the Braves.

“It’s crazy. Instead of goals this year, we set missions and this totally blew us out of the water,” said Nikki Knebel. “It was special, especially as a senior, leaving Belmont this way. With the baseball going to state with two seniors (Colin Austin and Ethan James) and a senior girl (Sasha Wrege) going to state in track, we have turned this town around with the seasons we’ve had. This is the best feeling I could have. We’ve been pushing each other since junior high. We talked about our goals and we’ve worked hard towards those goals. The baseball team played with so much heart at sectionals, and that drove us to be better up here.”

 “A big key to this was the baseball team winning on Wednesday. You could feel the confidence building in our kids,” said Hodgson. “I hope that Belmont athletics is going to play with more confidence going into next year. We’ve been down in some sports for awhile, so I want to see us be competitive in those sports.”

Belmont advanced to the state championship game with a record-setting performance in their state semifinal match-up against first-time state qualifier Plainfield Tri-County (19–4) Thursday afternoon.

The Braves jumped on the Penguins early, scoring four times in the top of the first inning to take control. Senior Callie Douglas put Belmont ahead to stay with a sacrifice fly that brought in Johnson, who doubled to start the rally. A two-out error on a Reuter fly ball to right field scored two more runs, and an RBI-single to left by junior outfielder Mackenzie Shelnutt made it 4–0.

“We didn’t know a lot about them except that if we could hit their pitcher we thought we could win,” said Hodgson. “Everybody told us their pitcher was key to their team. Our pitcher was the key to our team, too.”

The Braves exploded for four more runs in the fifth inning to extend the lead to 8–0. Althaus singled in Nikki Knebel, who started the inning with a double, and Willborn helped herself with a two-run single to cap the rally. Freshman pinch runner Taytem Benson also stole home for another run in the stanza.

The Braves put the game out of reach with a seven-run sixth inning highlighted by a three-run inside-the-park home run for Shelnutt, which was the first home run in the three-year history of Division 5.

Shelnutt also tied D5 records for hits in a game (three) and RBIs in a game (four) in Thursday’s victory.

Reuter, Willborn and junior pinch hitter Hailey Layer added a RBI-singles for Belmont in the sixth, while Miesen scored on a wild pitch to aid the rout. 

All 18 players got in to play in Thursday’s game with 11 scoring runs, eight getting hits and six driving in runs. Belmont set D5 records for runs (15) and hits (15) in a game along with a slew of other D5 marks since the division is just three years old.

“We all had one common mission on this team, so I’m excited we got everybody into the game tonight,” said Hodgson.

Shelnutt went 3-for-4 with four RBI and two runs to lead the way. Willborn added two hits and three RBI, while N.Knebel and Reuter each tallied two hits and two runs.

Johnson had two hits with a double and a run, and Althaus had two hits with a RBI. Junior Caitlyn Cushman scored twice for the Braves.

Willborn fired six scoreless innings en route to the victory in the circle, striking out a D5 record 10 batters while allowing just two hits without issuing a walk.

WIAA Division 5 state final
Belmont 7, Blair–Taylor 1
(from Saturday, June 8 @ Goodman Diamond, Madison)
Belmont..........400 047 x — 15 15  0
Blair–Taylor..000 000 x —   0   2  1
     Leading hitters — B: Sadie Willborn 2x4, Peyton Johnson 2x5, Nikki Knebel 2x3, Abby Althaus 2x3, McKenzie Reuter 2x4, Mackenzie Shelnutt 3x4. 2B — B: Peyton Johnson, Nikki Knebel, Abby Althaus. HR — B: Mackenzie Shelnutt. 
     W — Sadie Willborn (25–1, 6IP, 2H, 0R, 0ER, 10K, 0BB). L — Erica Pronschinske (5.1IP, 14H, 15R, 12ER, 6K, 5BB).

WIAA Division 5 state semifinal
Belmont 15, Tri-County 0
(from Thursday, June 6 @ Goodman Diamond, Madison)
Belmont......400 047 x — 15 15  0
Tri-County..000 000 x —   0   2  1
     Leading hitters — B: Sadie Willborn 2x4, Peyton Johnson 2x5, Nikki Knebel 2x3, Abby Althaus 2x3, McKenzie Reuter 2x4, Mackenzie Shelnutt 3x4. 2B — B: Peyton Johnson, Nikki Knebel, Abby Althaus. HR — B: Mackenzie Shelnutt. 
     W — Sadie Willborn (25–1, 6IP, 2H, 0R, 0ER, 10K, 0BB). L — Erica Pronschinske (5.1IP, 14H, 15R, 12ER, 6K, 5BB).