Timely hitting, dazzling defense hold off late Westosha rally
WILMOT – In order to be a successful team, in any sport, contributions are needed from top to bottom.
With softball, sure, there has to be the dominant pitcher and the home run hitters, but there also needs to be the kid who understands you don’t have to move out of the way, per a new WIAA rule, and can get hit by a pitch to drive in a run.
Or the kid who trusts her arm and fires out the lead runner for the first out at third base.
Or how about the player that trusts her positioning and glove so much that not even the sun, on a hot, shiny day, can stop her from catching a potential game-saving line drive – even though she can’t see it.
The Burlington varsity softball squad will play at next week’s state tournament at Goodman Diamond on the UW-Madison campus, and every single girl can go to sleep tonight knowing she did her part, on the field or off.
In a Division 1 sectional final, the second-seeded Demons finished the job they started two weeks ago when they clinched conference for the first time in three decades with a hard-fought, back-and-forth battle with one of the blue bloods of Wisconsin high school softball, two-time state champion Westosha Central, the 4 seed, by a score of 6-4.
Burlington improved to 22-5 and will open the WIAA Division 1 state tournament Thursday, June 7 at UW-Madison.
Westosha’s season ends at 20-9.
The girls hugged and tackled each other so hard on the mound after Jaina Westphal’s final put out ended it, Westphal fell to the ground thanks to the mosh pit of joy.
History can’t be denied
It was a surreal moment for a program that started in 1978, won state in 1984 and went again in 1988, then took 30 years to return to the top of the mountain.
For years, the Southern Lakes Conference has had a major reason to do with that, as Westosha, Wilmot, Delavan-Darien, Waterford and others have been dominant, and today the SLC is probably the best softball conference in the state.
Moments after the game, as players screamed in victory, embraced parents and friends and couldn’t remove their million-dollar smiles, senior Leah Zinnen, who didn’t play in Thursday’s win, summed it up nicely.
“We are all great players,” Zinnen said. “This is the greatest group of girls I’ve ever gotten to work with in anything, and we’re really excited to keep playing.”
Zinnen, who is at the top of her graduating class of 2018 academically, knows this group is special.
The rhetoric of “great players,” regardless of playing time, speaks volumes to the character and confidence of this bunch.
The chemistry is real, as words like “fun” and “family” were thrown out as the seven seniors spoke about the big win.
Westphal, who led off the game with a home run, summed up how special of a team it takes to accomplish something like a sectional championship.
“This is the best group of girls and the most fun I’ve had in my career,” said Westphal, who has been playing club softball the past four years. “These girls have my back like no one else. They pick me up, they pick other girls up. They are the best teammates that I could ever ask for.”
Westphal led off the game with a bomb, and two batters later, Josie Klein copied her with another long blast, the exact same way the duo began the last game they played at Wilmot, a 5-1 victory to clinch a share of the SLC title two weeks ago.
Coincidence? I think not.
Westphal and Klein have combined for nearly 10 homers this season, and Ashley Schmalfeldt, who tacked on a major insurance run with an RBI double in the fifth, has added four dingers.
“It was two outs and two runners were on,” Schmalfeldt said of the key hit in the fifth. “I knew I had to do something special.”
Everyone chips in
Another key Thursday was the bat of Bridi Allen.
After Burlington jumped out, 3-0, Westosha tied things up with a Carlie Odejewski two-run double and Becca Edwards run-scoring single in the third.
But a tie game with four innings to go was nothing for the Demons, who miraculously, there’s really no other way to put it, stormed back down 6-1 in the SEVENTH to send a sectional semifinal to extras and beat Elkhorn.
Then Allen came through, knocking in Maddie Berezowitz with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-3 before starting another big inning in the fifth.
Allen fought an Olivia Kazamura heater into left-center, where Riley Johnson got a glove on the ball but couldn’t make the play, and continued a rally. Next up was Schmalfeldt, who ran the count full after being down 2-2 and lunged forward to zip a laser to the fence in center.
Allen scored to make it 5-3.
With the bases loaded, another senior, Kya Kafar, got hit by a pitch and later Alexandria Naber leaned into one to score a run and make it 6-3, which allowed the Demons to relax a bit.
But this Falcons squad, despite no true superstars and a young Kazamura, found a way to make it interesting in in their final at-bat.
Westosha reached on an error, then a base hit to left field could’ve spelled disaster with runners on the corners and no outs, but Naber played the ball perfectly and gunned out the lead runner at third.
Central wasn’t done however, as Edwards delivered again with a shot off the fence, inches away from a game-tying home run had Naber not hosed the lead runner earlier.
Edquist, the tying run, then banged a sinking line drive to Berezowitz in right field. Blocking the sun, she bent down for a game-saving shoestring catch preserve another run.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Berezowitz said. “This has been our goal since day one.”
“I could not see the ball at all. Until it dropped below my waist, then I saw the ball. I threw my glove out there, and it happened to go in the glove. I don’t get very many in right, since Josie is such a good pitcher.”
Finally, Klein induced a groundout from Kazamura, and pandemonium ensued.
The Lady Demons rushed Klein at the mound, and the rest is history.
A team that found a way to come back from deficits in two previous playoff wins finally took an early lead, only to scratch and claw at the end thanks to small ball, plate discipline and a will to win.
Burlington can beat teams in many ways, and if the entire season up until Thursday was the lesson, the final three outs were the final exam, and the Demons passed with flying colors. They demonstrated mental toughness and a calm under fire.
These girls don’t break, they believe in themselves and they trust their talent.
“It’s a big deal,” said head coach Gary Caliva. “It’s all for these kids, they’ve worked hard. They’ve played through hardship, comeback wins, any kind of win, they done it and they’ve won almost all of them.”
“That out at third base in the seventh was huge. They’ve lived with adversity all year, and they never give in. What a tough field it was to play in at times. They’ve all come through all year long at times. One game, it’s this bunch of kids and another game, it’s another bunch of kids.”
Berezowitz was 2-for-4, while Klein went 2-for-2.
Westphal, Allen and Schmalfeldt picked up the other three hits, as Kazamura pitched well enough to win.
But Klein, as she’s done all season, competed just a bit better than the opposing pitcher, trusting her stuff to get her out of jams and her stingy defense, which featured other key plays from Schmalfeldt at third and Gracie Peterson at shortstop.
While Caliva said he isn’t thinking about state, yet, the players weren’t necessarily jumping off the fence in excitement like they won a state title.
Demons far from satisfied
It was more of a business-like demeanor that suggested there’s plenty of work to be done.
For Kya Kafar, whose mom and dad made it to state in baseball and softball 30 years ago in their hometown, making state is a big deal.
“It feels great,” she said. “I know personally state has always been a goal, and softball has always been a part of my life.”
“In the beginning of the season, we all had a goal to go to state, but I don’t know if we actually believed it,” said Ashley’s cousin Jenna Schmalfeldt.
“But we jell together so nicely, and we’ve really worked together, and it’s great it finally happened.”
Klein pointed to constant energy, on the field and in the dugout, as a major catalyst for success.
Throughout the journey, with all the wins, losses, cheers and tears, the girls haven’t lost sight of why they play softball in the first place – fun.
“We’re just having so much fun,” Ashley Schmalfeldt said. “I think we can do anything at this point. Let’s keep it rolling.”