When the 2011 softball season ended and the players from New Life Academy were celebrating their school’s fourth consecutive Class 1A state championship, there was one common thought as the dust settled: That was a great run for the Eagles.
Indeed it was. New Life – a Woodbury school with 239 students – made Minnesota history a year ago by becoming the first team to win four softball crowns in a row. Last year’s trip to the state tournament in Mankato also was the Eagles’ sixth in a row; the state record is eight straight appearances by Winona Cotter from 2000 to 2007.
New Life’s six-year string of success included a total record of 138 wins and only 22 losses. During the four-year championship run, the Eagles were 93-16. But as thoughts turned to the 2012 season, there was another glaring fact about New Life: The Eagles’ roster included a grand total of zero seniors.
Most people figured that the good times were over … including New Life coach Mick Ramey.
“I did, too,” he said Tuesday. “I hoped we’d go 50-50 this year.”
He issued that statement with a grin on his face, the grin of a guy whose team was headed back to Mankato. On the strength of a 5-3 victory over Minneapolis Washburn at Hamline University, the Eagles claimed the Section 4 title and their seventh consecutive state tournament appearance.
Their record is 16-6. They are not ranked in the Class 1A top 10. Oh, and their starting first baseman watched Tuesday’s game with a giant yellow cast on her left shin and foot. While sitting in a wheelchair.
Sometimes there is magic at work. Sometimes a team is better than everyone thought it would be. And sometimes both.
“I’m as happy as ever,” said sophomore Jessica Lamb from her wheelchair in the midst of the postgame celebration. “I’m so proud of us.”
Lamb was hurt on Friday during a 6-3 win over Washburb that knocked the Millers into the loser’s bracket. Washburn then defeated Heritage Christian Academy 6-4 on Friday, setting up Tuesday’s game. The injury came in a play at the plate.
“I was sliding into home on a passed ball, the catcher came down and we kind of like collided,” Lamb said. “Her knee drove into my shin.”
Bang. Crack. One broken tibia and one cracked fibula later, Jessica was undergoing surgery. Her teammates were frightened by her injury, but they held things together and kept winning.
“It was very frightening,” said freshman pitcher Valerie Hohol. “But we all got our emotions in check and kept our cool. We prayed about her and just kept going. She really motivated us and just put a little fire in our gut and helped us keep going.”
The challenge for Washburn was a steep one. The Millers -- trying to become the first Minneapolis public school to reach the state softball tournament -- needed to win Tuesday’s game in order to force a final, deciding rematch on Thursday. Washburn out-hit New Life 7-4 Tuesday but made too many errors and gave the Eagles too many chances.
With the aid of three walks and a hit batter, the Eagles scored twice in the first inning on a bases-loaded walk and a bunt in the same situation. They got two more in the second with singles by Hohol and Malorie Giere driving in runs, and three fourth-inning errors helped the Eagles score their fifth run. Lauren Post drove in two runs for Washburn and Lia Gambucci had one RBI.
Many of the Eagles had Lamb’s number 7 written on their arms, and they rushed to her side when she arrived in her wheelchair a few minutes before game time. They had spent time with her in the hospital over the long holiday weekend, but seeing her on a softball field again was special.
“She just got her cast on today, so that was the first time we’ve all seen her out of the hospital,” Hohol said. “It was great.”
Her spot at first base is being filled by sophomore Chloe Westlund, who made the move from center field. It was probably fitting that Tuesday’s game ended on a ground ball to sophomore Amanda Heidmann at third base, who threw to Westlund. Chloe caught the throw with her foot on the bag, raised her fist in the air and joined her teammates in a mob at the center of the infield.
In the middle of the mob was Hohol. Like her coach – and most everyone else who had an opinion about the Eagles before the season began – Hohol had her doubts about where this season would end.
“I really don’t have many words to express it,” she said. “People didn’t expect us to go to state, and at the beginning of the year I didn’t even expect us to go state. We just grew as a team and grew as people. It was great.”
And it continues to be pretty great.
--To see a photo gallery from the New Life Academy-Washburn game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 573
*Miles John has driven: 7,766
--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