NORTH MANKATO — Stillwater’s bid for a second straight state softball championship fell just shy after Maple Grove escaped a bases-loaded situation in the top of the seventh inning to secure a 3-2 victory in the Class AAAA title game on Friday, June 7 at Caswell Park.

The Crimson (25-2) captured the program’s first-ever state championship in softball, while denying what would have been Stillwater’s sixth state title. It was the first loss in six trips to the state finals for the Ponies, who claimed titles in 1995, 1996, 1998, 2012 and 2018.

No team has won back-to-back state titles in the largest-school division since Burnsville in 2004 and 2005.

“It’s heart-breaking, but we’re so proud of ourselves because it’s still good,” said Stillwater senior catcher Torri Chute, who joined teammates Allison Benning and Cat Smetana on the All-Tournament Team. “I wanted to win it all and go back-to-back because I can’t remember the last time somebody has done that, but second is still good and I’m proud of everybody.”

Standing in the way of Stillwater’s bid for a repeat was Maple Grove pitcher Ava Dueck, who belted a first-inning solo home run and also held the Ponies scoreless until the seventh inning.

Dueck did not allow an earned run while allowing two walks and seven hits with four strikeouts.

The Ponies (20-10) intentionally walked Dueck in the fifth inning, but Jade Tomashek made them pay after lining a double to score two runs and build a 3-0 lead for Maple Grove.

“It turned out they were the deciding factor,” Ponies coach Bob Beedle said. “With Dueck on the mound that’s pretty difficult to overcome, especially with two innings remaining.”

Those runs were needed after two errors, hits by Haley Eder-Zdechlik, Chute and an intentional walk helped the Ponies push two runs across with the bases loaded with Morgan Wohlers at the plate.

Wohlers has been especially productive of late and she drove a sharp liner up the middle that Dueck deflected with her glove right to Tomashek at second base, who then tagged the base runner for the final out. With speedy Amber Scalia at second base, Stillwater could have scored two runs on the play if not for the deflection by Dueck.

“It was a great play by her,” Beedle said. “She’s a terrific athlete who happened to tip it to another terrific athlete and they made a difference in that game. With two outs and a ball up the middle, we’re probably going to score two runs there with our fastest kid at second.”

It took a strong performance from Dueck to slow down a potent Stillwater lineup, which combined for 22 hits and 15 runs scored in their state tourney victories over Farmington and Forest Lake.

“She’s tougher than what we’ve seen in this tournament and definitely better than what we have seen,” Eder-Zdechlik said. “She moved the ball well and we had to adjust to that, but we didn’t until later in the game. When we did adjust, we hit it well but when we did hit it hard sometimes it was right at them.”

“She throws harder than other pitchers that we’ve faced and she definitely locates better,” said Chute, who is expected to join Dueck as teammates at reigning NCAA Division II national champion Augustana University in the fall. “She just throws hard.”

Stillwater’s come-from-behind exploits have been well documented. The Ponies won six straight elimination games before knocking off each of the top three seeds at state to claim the title a year ago and they won five straight elimination games to capture the Section 4AAAA championship this season.

“We’re definitely fighters,” Chute said. “When one thing wasn’t working we didn’t let that affect us and we just moved forward and kept fighting this whole season. Definitely (last year’s) experience helped us. We weren’t as nervous and we were relaxed and calm, so that helped.

“I’m just proud of everybody. They all put in 100 percent every single day and we never gave up. We were so close to our goal, but just feel a little bit short.”

Trailing 1-0 in the third inning, Stillwater worked out potential trouble when Eder-Zdechlik fielded a sharp grounder, tagged a runner and fired to first for a double play. It was the latest defensive gem for the junior second baseman, who recorded 13 assists without an error in the tournament.

“If they awarded All-Tournament Team based on defense she would have been a unanimous choice,” Beedle said. “They seem to lean towards pitchers and hitters, but she was deserving to make it. She handles everything over there really well.

With several young players in the lineup, errors were a concern for the Ponies throughout much of the season but they did committed just error combined in three games at state.

“The defense played well and that was a big correction compared to the regular season,” Beedle said.

Ponies pitcher Allison Benning left after 5 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on six hits and four walks and one strikeout. Freshman Keira Murphy kept the Crimson scoreless the rest of the way.

“I’m so proud of everyone,” Eder-Zdechlik said. “We all played as a team. We win as a team, we lose as a team and overall it was just a really great tournament. We worked our hearts out for this.”

Stillwater 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 — 2 7 0

Maple Grove 1 0 0 0 2 0 x — 3 6 3

WP: Ava Dueck 7-ip, 7-h, 2-r, 0-er, 2-bb, 4-so

LP: Allison Benning 5 2/3-ip, 6-h, 3-r, 3-er, 4-bb, 1-so

Leading hitters: St, Torri Chute 2x4, Cat Smetana 2x4 (RBI), Ani Bell 1x3 (BB), Taylor Gray 1x3 and Haley Eder-Zdechlik 1x3; MG, Elizabeth Berry 1x3, Ava Dueck 2x2 (HR, RBI), Jade Tomashek 1x3 (2RBI), Mavis Sachs 1x2 and Maddie Doyle 1x3.

Stillwater 9, Forest Lake 1

After getting swept by the Rangers (24-3) during the regular season, Stillwater jumped out to an early 2-0 lead and pulled away with a five-run third inning to knock off top-seeded Forest Lake 9-1 in the semifinals on Thursday, June 6.

Keira Murphy allowed just run on three hits and a walk with three strikeouts in five innings.

Starting pitcher Allison Benning helped her cause with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first.

Allison Eder-Zdechlik singled up the middle to start the third inning and Torri Chute drew a walk before Cat Smetana pushed up both runners with a sacrifice bunt. Benning was intentionally walked to load the bases and Ani Bell followed with an RBI single. Morgan Wohlers then drove a hit through the right side to plate two more runs. Katie Kurzejeski also delivered an RBI single in the inning as Stillwater seized control.

“We got off to a good start with Benning’s home run in the first inning to put them on their heels,” Ponies coach Bob Beedle said. “They were the No. 1 seed and the top-rated team in the state, so that’s a feather in our cap. A lot of people didn’t figure we would be there, so getting past them was the key to that.”

Forest Lake 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 — 1 4 1

Stillwater 2 0 5 0 0 2 x — 9 11 0

WP: Keira Murphy 5-ip, 3-h, 1-r, 1-er, 1-bb, 3-so

LP: Claire Bakkestuen 3-ip, 8-h, 7-r, 5-er, 2-bb, 1-so

Leading hitters: FL, Lindsey Johnson 2x3, Abigail Drury 1x3 and Katie Gemeunden 1x2 (RBI); St, Torri Chute 1x3 (HR, 2RBI), Cat Smetana 2x3, Allison Benning 1x3 (HR, 2RBI), Ani Bell 2x3 (RBI), Morgan Wohlers 1x3 (2RBI), Keira Murphy 1x3, Katie Kurzejeski 1x3 (RBI) and Haley Eder-Zdechlik 2x3.

Stillwater 6, Farmington 2

The Ponies drove seven extra base hits among their 11 hits to turn back fifth-seeded Farmington in the state quarterfinals on Thursday, June 6.

Allison Benning struck out five while allowing one hit and two walks in four innings to get the win. Keira Murphy threw the final three innings to notch the save.

“Murphy was a big story coming in as a relief pitcher,” Ponies coach Bob Beedle said. “That allowed us to hang on and stop the bleeding.”

Torri Chute homered for the Ponies, who also received a single and two doubles from Cat Smetana. Taylor Gray doubled and homered to drive in three runs and Haley Eder-Zdechlik also singled and doubled for the Ponies.

Farmington scored two runs in the fifth to climb within 4-2 and was threatening for more, before Chute and Ani Bell combined on a superb double play. With the bases loaded and the infield pulled in, Bell fielded a grounder and fired to Chute at home. Chute faked a throw to first and then fired a strike down to third to pick off the runner for the third out.

“We had a couple big plays that allowed us to hang on,” Beedle said.

The wasted opportunity for Farmington loomed even larger after Gray launched a two-run blast in the bottom of the inning for a 6-2 lead.

Farmington 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 — 2 7 1

Stillwater 0 1 3 0 2 0 x — 6 11 1

WP: Allison Benning 4-ip, 1-h, 2-r, 2-er, 2-bb, 5-so

LP: Rebecca Hoeve 6-ip, 11-h, 6-r, 6-er, 1-bb, 3-so

Leading hitters: Far, Olivia Hazelbaker 1x3, Elly Rust 1x2, Abigail Clayton 2x3, Kaitlyn Abraham 1x2 (RBI), Kamryn Hughes 1x1 and Kayla Herda 1x3; St, Torri Chute 1x3 (HR, RBI), Ani Bell 1x4 (2B), Allison Benning 2x3 (RBI), Cat Smetana 3x3 (2 2B, RBI), Taylor Gray 2x3 (2B, HR, 3RBI) and Haley Eder-Zdechlik 2x3 (2B).

Contact Stuart Groskreutz at stuart.groskreutz@ecm-inc.com

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