NORTH MANKATO – Leaving their hotel for the state tournament Thursday, several Stillwater softball players were greeted by Adrian Wagner, coach of Class 3A entrant Benilde-St. Margaret's, who admitted his amazement at their unprecedented journey to that point.
Thirty-six hours later, it was even more amazing.
After losing 10 of their last 12 regular-season games, Stillwater opened Class 4A section play with a loss. Then the Ponies won six consecutive games to even their record at .500 and earn an improbable trip to Caswell Park.
"No matter how bad your season's going or how tough it gets,'' Wagner told his team, "anything can happen."
Stillwater then defeated No. 2 Forest Lake in the quarterfinals and No. 3 Buffalo in the semifinals Thursday. On Friday, the Ponies delivered a 5-1 victory over No. 1 seed Park of Cottage Grove to claim the program's fifth state title.
"We knew coming here was a big deal," Stillwater senior Alex Ehde said. "Our coach told us to go with the flow ride the wave. This is a privilege to be here."
Coach Bob Beedle said staying positive and buying into development proved difficult through the bumpy regular season.
"You learn from your failures and failures create opportunities — we all know that's true — but it's awful difficult when you're going through a [losing] stretch. It takes a lot of character try to feed into that," Beedle said.
The Ponies (16-13) avenged two Suburban East Conference losses to Park of Cottage Grove, which won the league title. While the Wolfpack's dominance was steady through the season, the Ponies didn't find their stride until it mattered most.
Stillwater recorded 28 hits in the first two games of the state tournament and stayed hot Friday. Freshman pitcher Allison Benning hit an RBI double in the bottom of the first inning for the game's first score. Ehde added a two-run homer in the second inning to give Stillwater a commanding 4-0 lead.
Park (25-2) had outscored its tournament foes 19-0 through the first two rounds. But in Friday's game, Benning and a valiant Ponies defense held the Wolfpack to three hits through six innings and a season-low one run.
The Wolfpack had a chance to tie the score in the seventh inning with the bases loaded. But Delaney Young flew out to right field and the Ponies tagged a runner caught between second and third base for a game-ending, championship-clinching double-play.
Park coach Bob Loshek said his young team didn't have the poise to make the right plays in the seventh.
"We just saw [Stillwater] a few weeks ago," Loshek said, referring to his team's 10-3 victory over the Ponies on May 11. "They made spectacular plays today and played like champions today."
The Ponies, unbeaten in five state championship games, set a state record for most losses held by a state champion with 13.
"I don't this is going to be broken in this lifetime of mine or probably my next time," Beedle said.