Softball title belongs to Cougars

Lakeville South players celebrate their 3-2 victory over Maple Grove in the state Class 3A softball championship game. Photo by Bill Jones
Lakeville South players celebrate their 3-2 victory over Maple Grove in the state Class 3A softball championship game. Photo by Bill Jones

Lakeville South wins with sixth-inning rally

Not long after Kylie Stober committed to the University of Minnesota, the whispers started.

According to Stober’s coach at Lakeville South, Rob Laden, the whispers came from people who questioned whether Stober was good enough to play for a major college softball program.

As a group, the Cougars had their share of doubters. No team among the eight state Class 3A tournament qualifiers had more losses than Lakeville South’s five. Was a team that finished third in its conference – even one as good as the South Suburban – really state championship material?

On Thursday and Friday, Stober – and the Cougars – had a golden opportunity to prove their softball worth.

“We played some of the best teams in the state all season,” Stober said. “We always felt we could compete with them.”

Stober pitched a four-hitter with 11 strikeouts as the Cougars defeated Maple Grove 3-2 in the Class 3A championship game Friday at Caswell Park in North Mankato.

The Crimson hit only one fair ball sharply against Stober, but it was a double that scored two runs in the third inning. For a while, it looked as if it would be enough to give Maple Grove its first victory in three trips to the state final.

South (22-5) scored one run in the fourth and cobbled together a two-run rally in the sixth to take the lead. The Cougars pushed across the go-ahead run on suicide squeeze by Mariah Uphoff that scored Michaela Thielen, who just barely beat the throw home.

Lakeville South had runners at second and third with one out when Laden called for the squeeze. He said later he was playing the percentages.

Laden said in his coaching career the suicide squeeze has had a 74 percent success rate when the batter gets the ball on the ground.

“Even if you have a .300 or .400 hitter at the plate, that’s only a 30 or 40 percent chance if she swings away,” Laden said.

At least one South player wasn’t surprised by the squeeze call.

“No, he’s done that before,” said Isabella Laden, the starting shortstop and the head coach’s daughter. “He’s pretty aggressive in situations like that.”

Alicia Young drove in the first run of the sixth inning with a single that brought home Bailee Jackson, who had a leadoff double.

The Cougars got an unearned run in the fourth inning when Maple Grove pitcher Sydney Smith’s throwing error allowed South pinch-runner Jenna Uphoff to score.

Stober had to pitch out of trouble in the seventh when Maple Grove (22-4) had runner at first and second with one out and second and third with two out. She struck out Smith to end the game.

Lakeville South defeated Orono 2-1 in eighth innings in a quarterfinal game Thursday. Jenna Uphoff scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch in the top of the eighth.

Amanda Bloomquist hit a grand slam during an eight-run fifth inning as the Cougars beat Anoka 11-0 in the semifinal round. Stober and Madison Rutter had two RBI each.

In 2013, Lakeville South made a surprise run at the Section 3 championship before losing back-to-back games to Bloomington Jefferson. After that, South was moved to Section 1 and lost its coach, Colleen Powers, who became head coach at St. Catherine University.

Rob Laden, a longtime Lakeville youth and traveling softball coach who had worked with most of the South players, stepped in.

Despite having just two seniors, Stober and pitcher/first baseman Maddi Bianchi, the South players felt good about their chances in 2014.

“We had our leaders, Kylie and Maddi, who are also great pitchers,” Isabella Laden said. “Our younger players are really talented, and we were able to put a good lineup together.”

“At the start of the season I was a little worried about playing in our conference because it has so many good teams,” Bloomquist said. “But after a few games we saw we were a good team, too.”

On Friday, the Cougars could have stuck around North Mankato for hours, having their photos taken with the state championship trophy. They were obviously elated and in at least one instance felt vindicated.

“It seems like I’ve always been No. 2 or No. 3 compared to some other players,” Stober said. “It feels great to be on top, finally.”