by ADAM GRUENEWALD
The Central softball team survived the first week of the playoffs.
After going 3-1 in games this past week, Central was scheduled to face Belle Plaine in a consolation round game at Caswell Park in Mankato on Tuesday. If they won, the Raiders then faced Maple River on Tuesday.
The winner of that game then goes against LeSueur-Henderson in the Class AA Section 2 final tonight, May 29, at 5 p.m. at Caswell Park for a trip to state.
The Raiders opened the playoffs last Tuesday with a home win over Sibley East, 11-1, defeated Belle Plaine at home on Thursday, 6-5, before losing to LeSueur-Henderson, 2-0, and defeating Albert Lea, 5-1, on Saturday at Caswell Park.
Central, ranked fourth in Class AA according to the Minnesota Fastpitch Coaches’ Association as of May 17, is now 20-3 on the season.
Central 11, Sibley East 1
The Raiders slugged their way to an opening win over Sibley East at home.
Megan Knickerbocker, McKayla Lobitz, Kaylie Brazil and Natalie Stockman all hit homeruns for the Raiders in the effort.
They jumped on Sibley East early too, scoring six runs in the first inning. Kayla Leonhardt led off with a walk and was bunted to second. Brazil followed with a single and Leonhardt came around to score on an error. Stockman followed with a double and Megan Miller hit a two-run double and Knickerbocker drove her in with a two-run shot for a 5-0 lead. Abby Forner then got a single, Anna Willems reached on a fielder’s choice, Ashley Luskey walked and Leonhardt got a RBI double for the 6-0 advantage.
The early run support helped Stockman on the mound as threw five innings, giving up two hits and a walk while striking out 10.
“I knew once we got our runs it would be easier for me to pitch strikes and get ahead,” said Stockman.
Stockman gave up one run in the fourth after a leadoff walk came around to score.
“I walked a girl and when you walk a girl eventually they score,” she said. “It seems like everytime you walk them they score. I didn’t hit my spots so well that inning but we came back.”
The Raiders offense kept up the offense though, scoring a run in the second on an infield hit by Willems, getting two more on solo shots by Stockman and Lobitz in the third and a two-run homerun by Brazil in the fourth inning.
“We’ve been in a little bit of a slump and I thought we got out of it pretty well,” said Stockman, adding the win helps. “It makes us more confident that we can hit the ball.”
Central 6, Belle Plaine 5
In dramatic fashion, Central lost a 5-0 lead to Belle Plaine but still managed to get the victory with a walkoff grounder in the seventh inning to advance.
Tied at 5-5 heading into the bottom of the seventh, Leonhardt started the frame off with a double. Lobitz then followed with a single to advance Leonhardt to third.
“There was a runner on second and I just thought get her around and that’s all I have to do,” said Lobitz.
Brazil followed with a grounder to short, but Leonhardt slid in safely for the win.
The Raiders got on the board first with a big third inning where they scored five runs. After a groundout, Paige Schneider reached on a single. Leonhardt then drove a triple over the outfielders in deep center to plate Luskey, who was running for Schneider, and Lobitz followed with a RBI double.
“I saw her pitch it in and we just took the ball and when we got a good pitch we hit it well,” said Lobitz. “We didn’t think about doing too much. Base hit is all you need.”
Stockman earned a walk and Brazil reached on a fielder’s choice. Megan Miller then got a RBI single and Knickerbocker reached on an error, scoring Brazil. Forner then got a single to Miller for the fifth run of the inning.
Stockman, who had helped her own cause in the third inning with a popup for a double play with two runner on, continued to strand baserunners until the fifth inning. Belle Plaine plated two runs on a double, but Stockman then got two strikeouts to end the threat.
The Tigers tied the score though in the top of the sixth, taking advantage of a few hits, a walk and an error. After the Tigers got the third out of the inning at home in the bottom of the sixth, Stockman picked up three more strikeouts to work out of another jam in the seventh.
Lobitz said the team was focused to get the win.
“We just said it’s our time and we have to get it back right now,” she said. “It’s our game, let’s take it.”
Lobitz added the win helps the team’s confidence going forward.
“It boosts me up a lot,” said Lobitz. “Right now we’re a team and we’re going to stick together and win it all.”
LeSueur-Henderson 2, Central 0
The Raiders opened in Mankato with a 2-0 loss to Carly Brandt and LeSueur-Henderson.
Central 5, Albert Lea 1
The Raiders rebounded from their first playoff loss and remained alive with a win over Albert Lea in an afternoon game at Caswell Park.
Albert Lea, as the home team, struck first in the second inning with a leadoff homerun to centerfield by Caycee Gilbertson.
Central answered right away in the third inning though when Kaylie Brazil led it off with a single, stole second and scored on a triple by Stockman. After a flyout, Knickerbocker hit a double to score Stockman.
“LSH was a tough loss especially after beating them twice in conference,” said Knickerbocker. “It (the win) gives us hope and it makes us feel like we can do it… None of us had a good game the first game and we all just kind of shook it off and came back.”
Brazil again got the offense started with a walk in the fifth inning and she then stole second. After an out and a walk by Miller, Knickerbocker again came through with a run-scoring single.
Knickerbocker finished the game hitting 3-for-4.
“She throws inside a lot and we just started to adjust and, not just me but, we all kind of adjusted really well,” she said.
The Raiders later tacked on two more runs in the sixth frame when they took advantage of several misplays as Leonhardt and Lobitz both scored.
Stockman recorded 11 strikeouts in seven innings while giving up four hits and one walk.
“Natalie did great,” said Knickerbocker. “She always does great but especially playing two games in this heat she definitely pulled through for us.”
Looking ahead, Knickerbocker was eager for the chance to keep the season going.
“We just need to keep having confidence and adjusting to our pitchers,” said Knickerbocker. “If we get Belle Plaine we’ll know what’s coming, but if we get (New Richland HEG) we’ll have to adjust, definitely.”
Should the Raiders make it to state the first and second round games of the Class AA tournament are held on June 5. The final and third place games are on June 6. All games are played at Caswell Park in Mankato. For more information, visit www.mshsl.org.
Contact Adam Gruenewald at email@example.com.