MADISON – As an athlete or as a team, it’s a special feeling when you exceed the expectations people have of you, or even those you set for yourself.
For members of the Southwestern varsity softball team, they can take great pride in ending the 2016 softball season as the Division 4 state runner-ups, and for taking the school and community on a historic ride that ended last Saturday in the state championship game.
Following a 13-14 season a year ago in which they finished fifth in the Southwest Wisconsin Activities League, the Wildcats were essentially an afterthought this year behind the likes of Cuba City, Mineral Point and Riverdale.
Under second-year head coach John Costello though, the Wildcats won the SWAL title in convincing fashion with a record of 13-1.
They didn’t stop there either. They went on to win the program’s first-ever regional title, then sectional title, and just this past weekend, finished a sensational season as the Division 4 State Runners-Up.
“I am so proud and impressed with this group of girls for their effort, believing in the system and for working to achieve our goals,” said coach Costello.
Those goals at the beginning of the season were to compete night in and night out in a very tough SWAL conference, to win the school’s first-ever regional title, and to earn respect for the Southwestern softball program.
You can certainly put a check mark next to all three.
The Wildcats closed outtheir historic season in impressive fashion at Goodman Diamond in Madison last Friday and Saturday.
Hot bats and aggressive base running led to a 16-8 state semifinal win over Cochrane-Fountain City Friday morning, while a 9-2 loss to Thorp in Saturday’s state championship game, closed out Southwestern’s season with a record of 25-4.
On Friday, the Wildcats tied a Division 4 state tournament record by pounding out 16 hits in a 16-8 victory over Cochrane-Fountain City (24-5).
After each team scored a single run in their half of the first inning, the Wildcats blew the game open with a nine-run rally in the top of the third, using eight hits to get the job done.
In the third, Katie Fritz had a three-run double to right-center, Allison Kruser a two-run double to left field, Rachel Mueller an RBI single to centerfield, Hanna Hinman an RBI bunt single and Chloe Riniker an RBI single to left-center.
But after the Wildcats had just taken a 10-1 lead, the Pirates answered back in the bottom half of the third with a four-run rally of their own, making it 10-5 going into the fourth.
In the top half of the fourth, Southwestern’s bats remained hot, as they managed to score six more runs off four hits and two Pirate errors.
Hanna Hinman drew a bases-loaded walk to get the scoring started, then Riniker had an RBI single, which was followed by a two-run double by Fritz to score Hinman and Claire Splinter.
Brand and Fritz each scored on an error, giving the Wildcats another big lead of 16-5, and possibly ending the game early with the 10-run rule after five innings.
In the bottom of the fifth though, Cochrane-Fountain City prevented the game from ending early, as they scored three runs to cut their deficit to 16-8.
“We knew that they were going to come out, and in situations like this things kind of get tight from time to time,” coach Costello said.
“I’m extremely proud of my girls. They’ve been resilient all year long. We get up a bunch of runs, then we give up a couple runs, and we go back and get some more. It makes it pretty exciting,” Costello added.
Neither team scored in the final two innings, as Southwestern had just one hit each in the sixth and seventh innings and left one runner on base in the sixth.
When it was all said and done, Allison Kruser led the way for Southwestern’s offense with four hits, two runs scored and three RBIs.
Chloe Riniker and Katie Fritz each had three hits, Fritz also with a team-high five RBIs to go along with two runs scored. Riniker scored one run and had two RBIs.
Rachel Mueller finished the game with two hits, two runs scored and one RBI, while Amber Brand, Madison Kuhl, Claire Splinter and Hanna Hinman each had one hit.
“It’s contagious,” said coach Costello of the team’s hitting performance. “Someone gets up and gets a good hit, and the next girl goes up just knowing that she is confident and is going to get a hit. It’s a contagious game, very contagious.”
“I’m extremely proud of the girls, on how they were resilient, how they hit the ball and how they just attacked,” added Costello. “They did some really, really good things to put pressure on them.”
Putting pressure on the Pirate batters Friday morning was senior pitcher Madison Kuhl, who in seven innings of work allowed three earned runs off nine hits, while striking out six batters and walking three.
Friday’s state semifinal victory set up a Division 4 state championship match-up with the top-ranked Thorp Cardinals, who defeated Oakfield, 10-0, in the other state semifinal contest.
In Saturday’s state title game, Thorp got on the board first with a three-run rally off six hits in the top of the second inning.
The Cardinals added an unearned run to their total and took a 4-0 lead in the top of the third, taking advantage of three Southwestern errors in an inning where they didn’t have a hit.
The Wildcats finally got on the board in the bottom of the third, where Fritz scored on an RBI single by Madison Kuhl, after Fritz had advanced to third on an error.
Thorp scored another run in the top of the fourth to make it a 5-1 ballgame, but in the bottom half of the inning, Claire Splinter hit a two-out solo home run to deep left field, making it a 5-2 game.
From that point on, it was all Thorp, who added two runs in the fifth and two more in the sixth, finishing with nine runs on 13 hits (all singled), and taking advantage of five Southwestern errors.
The Wildcats finished the game with eight hits, getting two each from Fritz and Kuhl.
In the pitching circle, Kuhl allowed nine runs, six earned, off 13 hits, while striking out fie batters and walking three.
And while the Wildcats didn’t take home the gold trophy, their fans, their community and their coach couldn’t be more proud of the silver trophy they captured in Madison.
“It’s absolutely amazing, and our girls never even fathomed this,” said coach Costello after earning a trip to the state championship game. “That’s what makes it even more special. I’m just glad we have the opportunity. I’m very proud of these girls, and I owe it to them. They’ve done a lot of great things.”
At the conclusion of the season, coach Costello had to say goodbye to five valuable seniors, who included: Jenna Stienstra, Rachael Myers, Madison Kuhl, Miranda Kemp and Rachel Mueller, all of whom were also captains this year.