By Brian Jerzak
John’s Journal correspondent
As in most Christian high schools, a credo of faith, school and then athletics is followed by the athletes and coaches in the softball program at New Life Academy of Woodbury. The difference between the Eagles and the much of the rest of the state is the success that formula has brought the program.
Since 2006, head coach Mick Ramey, his staff and athletes have advanced to the Class 1A state tournament every year. They are gearing up for what they hope will be their eighth straight section championship. If they get there, they will tie the Minnesota record for consecutive section championships. During this stretch they won a state-record four straight state titles between 2008 and 2011. One of the keys to maintaining such a long run of excellence goes back to sticking with a system that is based in faith, school and sports.
Ramey started his coaching career in the Cottage Grove Athletic Association, coaching his kids in various sports. He was also a longtime board member for the association. He started coaching his boys and then as his girls got older he moved more toward their sports and eventually the sport his girls gravitated to – softball.
“I have coached 85 teams over the last 20 years,” said the longtime youth coach, “but every time I took away something about encouraging players, maximizing their strengths, minimizing their weaknesses and helping them relax.”
He became the New Life head softball coach in 2006. Although the team was young, the players had previously worked with Ramey so they all knew the system.
“That first year when we went to state, we had no seniors, one junior and the rest were sophomores all the way down to seventh graders. Because the girls were playing summer ball they were ready for the varsity scene. We just started playing good solid fundamental ball.”
With such a young team early on, it laid the foundation for the extended run of championships. The Schmidt sisters, first Danelle and then Rebecca, set the tone and the program has had a number of good pitchers -- especially during the four straight championships. The turning point for the program occurred while defending their first state championship. During a season that would end up with state title number two, the Eagles entered a regular-season tournament that put them up against the best team in the state.
“We played Burnsville and they were ranked number one in AAA that year,” said Ramey. “They were 20-0 and we played them in the opening game of the North St. Paul tournament. We played into the 11th inning and they hit a walk-off home run to beat us 3-2. That was the turning point for our program. That gave us the confidence that we could be a special team.”
In order to maintain that confidence, execution needs to be second nature. In practice the team focuses on what Ramey calls the Big Three.
“We don’t do many drills very long. We do a lot of drills for short periods. We do a lot of situations. Our girls are so aware of the Big Three. Always know your outs, always know where the runners are and always know the score and the situation. We drill that in every practice. We go through situations time and time again. We call out things like one down, girls on first and second, so every girl has been through this every practice.”
The Big Three has paid off. New Life has had a remarkable run of victories in one-run games. Ramey estimates they have had 25 one-run games over the years and have won about 21 of those games.
Another reason the girls have been so successful in the close games is that they are used to tough competition. Ramey schedules a number of bigger schools to go along with his conference schedule. His “iron sharpens iron” philosophy started out of necessity.
“For years St. Bernard’s was in our conference. I think they still lead the state in state tournament appearances so our section has always been strong,” said Ramey. “To be stronger we had to play those games and also schedule those AAA and AA schools.”
Maintaining such a high level for so long is a tribute to the coaching staff the Eagles have in place.
“We have so many good coaches in place that I can actually miss a practice or even a game and the machine still runs,” said the head coach of eight years. “We have had the same routine every year.”
One of the impressive aspects of this run of championships has to do with the small pool of athletes that New Life has to pull from. Sometimes they don’t have any players from a certain class on the team. After winning their first two titles they almost couldn’t field enough players to form the team that would ultimately win the third straight title. The system Ramey has in place has helped maintain enough numbers. Since he does not work in the school system, he has had to rely on the kids.
“I have had great captains over the years and they have been the foot soldiers that go out there and get kids to come out,” he said. “We have always been able to find a spot for everyone. Everyone has a role on the team.”
This year’s team was able to build on an unexpected playoff run last year.
“Last year was a rebuilding year,” Ramey said. “We were hoping to go .500. We were three or four games above .500 and had a tremendous run in section play. We beat a lot of good teams we maybe shouldn’t have. That first game at state we squeaked out a 2-1 win that maybe we shouldn’t have. It gave us a little more confidence going into this year. We didn’t have anyone graduate last year and we set some higher goals – one of them being winning it this year.”
Each year the veteran players do a great job of teaching the younger kids the system, making Ramey’s job easier. As Ramey said, it is the responsibility of the older girls to pay it forward and help the program not just during the current year, but down the road.
This year’s team – like countless others – has been aided by that “pay it forward” system and some of the players have grown into great leaders. Val Hohol and Malorie Gierie are the main pitcher and catcher, Chloe Westlund is the leadoff hitter, Amanda Heidmann has been manning third base for three years and Nicole Johnson is the team’s leading power hitter.
It’s yet to be determined of New Life Academy will win another state championship this year. But if the Eagles stick to both of their Big Threes – in softball and in life – they are sure to be in the mix for years to come.