Funny what one big victory can do for a team. It can lead to a whole bunch more.
After having all winter to think about how close it came to a state tournament berth in 2014, West Lutheran's softball squad opened this season against Columbia Heights, a Section 4A foe fixated on the same goal.
The Warriors pulled out a 3-2 victory, scratching out a run in the top of the ninth.
On paper, it's just one victory. But to the Warriors, it's so much more.
"That," said senior shortstop and team captain Ashley Beise, "was the most important thing that happened to us this season."
Forgive Beise if she forgot to add "so far." West Lutheran is in the midst of its most successful season in team history. It won its first 15 games before losing Saturday in the finals of the Concordia Academy Tournament. Even that loss — 1-0 to defending Class 2A champion Kasson-Mantorville and its Purdue-bound pitcher, Maddie Damon — didn't dampen their spirits or lessen their hopes.
"Damon is the real deal," West Lutheran coach Bill Vollbrecht said. "And we had a runner on third in the second inning, 60 feet away. Our girls realized they played a great game."
Considering the way this season has gone so far, playing a great game has become a common occurrence.
The Warriors, 15-1 through last weekend, have the luxury of two above-average pitchers who have found success using differing styles.
Sophomore Sydney Kappel is a self-taught bulldog who refuses to backdown. Eighth-grader Afton Zemke is a natural, smooth and fluid, and has been trained by some of the metro's best coaches. Each has started eight games, amassed about 60 strikeouts and pitched in big games. There is no rivalry between them. Both recognize that their different skill sets bring an added dimension to the team.
"We're really close friends," Kappel said. "We're always giving each other tips."
While some softball coaches prefer to ride one pitcher, Vollbrecht has played Kappel and Zemke equally, with no drop-off in results.
"I can use either of them, and I feel comfortable," Vollbrecht said.
Having two pitchers is a luxury that few team can boast, but what has made the softball community take notice is the Warriors' offense. It averages 11.3 runs per game and has topped 10 runs in a game 10 times. Four regulars have batting averages above .450 — Beise (.591), Lisa Hoffer (.521), Laura Studanski (.486) and Hailey Vollbrecht (.452). The team batting average is a robust .403.
"It's a little bit like a feeding frenzy," said Hailey Vollbrecht, the coach's daughter and starting center fielder. "Lisa [Hoffer] usually leads off with a hit, and we just keep hitting. There have been times when we've gone around the order twice in an inning."
As any ballplayer will attest, there are few things more fun than when your team is hitting well. Hitting can be contagious: Often, the biggest problem is staying patient until your turn comes around again.
"We always seem like we hit," said Studanski, a junior third baseman. "And the whole lineup hits. Whenever we get behind in an inning, we always seem to be able to come back right away and get our lead back."
West Lutheran's success is starting to make ripples in the local softball fabric. Advance scouts are starting to show up to games.
"Mick [Ramey], the New Life Academy coach, came and saw every game we played in the [Concordia Academy] tournament," Bill Vollbrecht said. "He was there watching us, scouting. That's a sign that people are taking us seriously."
Fellow West Lutheran students are chiming in, too. Despite myriad distractions that spring can bring, Beise said classmates are routinely commenting on the team's success.
"They keep asking things like, 'Are you guys ever going to lose?' " Beise laughed. "That's kind of fun."
On this warm spring afternoon, the Warriors' practice is loose and full of laughter. They know they've had a tremendous start to the season and that they're no longer able to fly under the radar. But there is no nervousness. They're a group of girls ranging in age from eighth-grade to seniors, yet everyone is comfortable. They're having too much fun winning together to get tense.
"I think that's because last year we didn't have any seniors," Studanski said. "We've all been playing together for at least two years, most of us a lot more than that. We just really trust each other."
Said Hailey Vollbrecht: "This is year is different. We all realize that we've got something going here. We've got that chance to do something special."
Jim Paulsen • 612-673-7737