NORTH MANKATO – State tournaments are always filled with good stories. One of the best tales here at the state softball tournament is one that resounds with longevity, dedication, love and plain old hard work.
Sebeka is making its first appearance at the softball tournament, and everybody around town was pulling for coach Diane Pettis to finally get here. She has been a teacher and coach at the school since 1976 and has coached softball, volleyball, cross-country and track … but had never taken to a team to a state tournament until now.
Diane is the kind of person who always has a bounce in her step, but she’s been a little extra giddy since the Trojans qualified for state.
“Oh my gosh, what a feeling,” she said Thurday before Sebeka met four-time defending champ New Life Academy in the Class 1A quarterfinals at Caswell Park. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve come down and watched the years that I’ve been coaching softball. And to be part of this now, it’s just an experience. And what a venue. This is wonderful.”
Pettis has come close to state tourney berths in the past, but as Sekeba athletic director Josh Haag said, “She’s knocked on the door a few times but she’s always had it shut in her face, until this year.”
Yes, this year has been special. The Trojans brought a 21-4 record to state, capped by a somewhat surprising victory over New York Mills in the Section 6 championship game. Sebeka trailed 2-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning when Pettis had a little talk with the players.
“I said, ‘Girls, we’re not going to hit a home run, we just need singles.’ ”
Soon thereafter, with one out and two runners on base, freshman Natalie Stiles belted a walk-off home run. All of a sudden, the Trojans were headed to state.
Pettis said, “Everybody looked at each other like, ‘What just happened?’ It was goosebumps.”
Or as senior infielder Jessica Lillquist explained, “Natalie bombed a home run and it was unbelievable.”
Pettis is a native of Bemidji and graduate of Bemidji State. Her first teaching job came in Sebeka all those years ago, and she never left. That’s the sign of a pretty good fit.
“It’s my first and only job,” she said.” In two years I was going to go back to school, but I never left.”
She has coached softball for 16 years while teaching physical education and health from the start of her career.
“I started out coaching volleyball, basketball and track and field. Then over the years it’s just evolved; it went down to two (sports), then it went down to three with junior high. About eight years ago I said we needed a young person with volleyball so I just took softball. I could have retired a couple of years ago but I’m still having fun.”
Junior pitcher Brett Brockpahler said getting the coach to state is a big, big deal.
“Yes, very much so,” she said. “She’s wanted it so bad. It’s exciting, it’s a great feeling.”
Pettis has been teaching and coaching in Sebaka longer than Haag has been alive. The athletic director said, “Diane’s a fun one to work with. And when it comes to these girls, it’s all about doing what’s best for them. She really has them at heart and goes out of her way to help them out and make sure they succeed.”
The Trojans lost a 2-1 decision to New Life Academy, but that did little to dampen the coach’s enthusiasm.
“The kids were kind of nervous batting probably more than they should have been,” Pettis said. “We batted tight. But I can’t fault our effort; we came to play and we played. I’m still excited.”
--When Stillwater wrapped up an 11-0 victory over Farmington in Thursday’s Class 3A quarterfinals, winning pitcher Hannah Heacox had no idea that she had just become part of state tournament history
Heacox threw the 33rd no-hitter in tournament history and struck out 10 batters. But she was totally unaware of the no-hitter until it was announced via the public-address system.
“I had no idea,” she said. Had she ever pitched a no-hitter before? “I don’t remember. I don’t think so.”
--When New Ulm Cathedral defeated Red Lake Falls 10-0 in the Class 1A quarterfinals, the state’s all-time leader in career softball coaching victories increased that number once more. Cathedral coach Bob Mertz, in his 33rd year, is now 672-120. His teams have been to 13 state tournaments and have won six championships.
--One of the day’s heroes was Cloquet senior Kayla Masessa. She hit a two-out, three-run, walkoff homer in the bottom of the seventh inning to lift the Lumberjacks past Mound Westonka 4-3 in the 2A quarterfinals.
--To see photos from the state softball tournament, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
--Diet Coke Count: 4 for the day, 9 for the spring tournaments.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 643
*Miles John has driven: 8,162
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn