NORTH MANKATO – Entering the Class 4A softball tournament with a .500 record, unseeded Stillwater seemed unthreatening to the rest of the field. Tell that to the Ponies.
After an 8-4 upset of No. 2 seed Forest Lake in the quarterfinals, Stillwater used a 16-hit attack to oust third-seeded Buffalo in a five-inning, 14-4 victory Thursday afternoon. The Ponies, now 15-13, will play Friday in their fifth state title game in program history.
"It's so exciting and I'm so proud of our team," said senior Tatiana Tabucol, who drove in five runs against Buffalo. "We definitely had a rough start to the season, and this makes it so much better — you don't even remember what happened in the [regular season]."
Tabucol had three hits, including two two-run singles. The second one came in the fifth inning when Stillwater scored seven runs and clinched the upset.
The Ponies scored two runs to open the game, but Buffalo (20-3) answered with a solo home run from Jordan Zrust. Stillwater kept on hitting, however, scoring multiple runs in each of the final three innings.
The Ponies had lost 11 of their last 13 games after being beaten by Cretin-Derham Hall to open the postseason. One loss from its season ending, Stillwater has since won eight consecutive games.
"We caught on fire and the kids are starting to believe in themselves," Stillwater coach Bob Beedle said. "The confidence is there and we've just been clicking right now."
Tabucol said Beedle has continued to hammer home the notion that it's hard to beat a team three times. The Ponies proved it true against Forest Lake, which had defeated Stillwater twice in Suburban East Conference play.
On Friday, Stillwater will again test Beedle's theory. The Ponies face top-seeded Park of Cottage Grove, which defeated Stillwater by scores of 1-0 and 10-3 earlier in the season. The Ponies are unbeaten in the state championship game, winning in all four appearances they've made in program history.
"We have great tradition and we do play off that," Beedle said. "Stillwater softball is great softball."
Park of Cottage Grove 10, Centennial 0 (6): The Wolfpack, making their third consecutive state tournament appearance, put away the first-time entrant Cougars in six innings.
The victory, after quarterfinal losses in the past two tournaments, sets up their first championship game appearance in 16 years.
"They knew that they wanted this. They fought and grinded all year — through those 18 inches of snow in April and all the practices and the [makeup schedules of] six games a week," Park coach Bob Loshek said. "This team is on a special mission."
After scoring single runs in each of the first three innings, the Wolfpack (25-1) broke open the game with a two-RBI double from senior Riley Perryman.
"Our bats were on fire and our defense was stellar," said Perryman, who went 2-for-3.
Park continued to rally against the Cougars (21-5). Wolfpack pitcher Bryanna Olson struck out seven batters in the first four innings.
"Our bats didn't come alive [Thursday]," Centennial coach Amanda Daeger said. "We haven't had a lot of losses this year so you just have to take them when they come."
Park of Cottage Grove hopes to stay the course Friday and extend its 17-game winning streak by one more.
"Upsets happen all the time and we know — any second, any day — people can come out and play their best game against us," Perryman said. "So we just have to keep humble and play our best game."