Blaze secures first winning record in five years
Three state championships in seven years helped make Burnsville softball one of the state’s most admired high school sports programs. Some tough times followed after the Blaze’s last state championship in 2010, but there have been signs of a resurgence this year.
Actually, those signs started showing up last year at the end of an otherwise forgettable 8-16 season. Burnsville went 2-2 in the Class 4A, Section 2 playoffs, in a section that produced eventual state champion Chanhassen. Burnsville upset top-seeded Prior Lake in the first round.
Burnsville is 13-5 this spring and is assured of its first winning season in five years. The Blaze won’t win the South Suburban Conference but can gain at least a tie for third place with victories in its final two regular-season games, both against Lakeville North. North visits Burnsville at 4:30 p.m. Thursday and the Blaze plays at North at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
The Section 2 playoffs start next week. As of Tuesday, six of the eight teams in the section had winning records. Chanhassen, Prior Lake, Bloomington Jefferson and Burnsville were a combined 61-13.
“It’s one of the best sections in the state, and I believe it’s pretty wide-open,” Burnsville coach Rachel Keeney said. “There are very strong teams throughout the section, and I believe we’re one of them.”
Keeney, a former Blaze softball standout, had returned to the program as an assistant coach. She became head coach this season, taking over for Pat Feely, who remains with the program as an assistant.
One of the first things she said she tried to do was make sure the team understood its performance in last year’s section playoffs wasn’t a fluke, but potentially an indication of things to come if the players were willing to work at it.
“When my staff came in, one of the first things we did was tell the players they should believe in themselves, because we believed in them,” Keeney said. “We asked them to come up with one word to describe the team and they came back with two – ‘fighter’ and ‘believe.’ We went with ‘believe.’”
Burnsville’s 4-3 victory over Eagan on May 11 helped reinforce the Blaze’s newly found confidence. The teams were tied 1-1 after seven innings, then Eagan scored to take the lead in the top of the eighth. Burnsville scored in its half of the inning to send it to the ninth, when Eagan scored another run. Burnsville responded with two in the bottom of the ninth to win the game.
Burnsville junior infielder Sawyer Brewster drove in three of her team’s four runs. Bridget Armstrong singled in a run in the eighth inning.
Four of Burnsville’s losses are to Prior Lake (twice), Farmington and New Prague, teams that are ranked in the top eight in Class 4A. Burnsville has a victory over defending North Dakota champion West Fargo, which came in the first round of the Polar Invitational in North St. Paul, a tournament Burnsville went on to win. Burnsville is 8-4 in the ultra-competitive South Suburban Conference with two games to play.
“We knew we had a strong infield,” Keeney said. “And we obviously had a strong pitcher (junior Megan Osterhaus, the Blaze’s starter since eighth grade). But our outfield was fairly new, and their defense had improved steadily all season. They’re making plays now that I’m not sure they thought they’d be able to make.”
Senior Skylar Lindemuth plays center field, flanked by ninth-grader Bri Hoevet in left and senior Paige Gardner in right.
Despite playing in a difficult conference, Burnsville has been able to score some runs. The Blaze is averaging more than five a game, and all nine starters have on-base percentages of .304 or higher. Brewster has a .460 average, .477 on-base percentage, four home runs and 22 RBI – all team highs.
In addition to batting .375 with 17 RBI, Osterhaus is 12-4 in the pitching circle with a 1.19 earned average and 160 strikeouts in 111 2/3 innings.
Heidi Stewart (.370 average) and Angela Wollmuth (.348) are two more hitting standouts for Burnsville.
One more thing that could work in Burnsville’s favor when the playoffs start – the Blaze is used to close games, having played five that went to extra innings. The team is 3-2 in those games.