High School Softball: 11-game win streak fuels Pillager's run to state
On May 2, the Pillager Huskies were sporting a 6-7 record and were reeling after enduring a 5-game losing streak. The thought of playing in the Class 1A state tournament was probably the farthest thing from the Huskies' minds at that point. But a...
On May 2, the Pillager Huskies were sporting a 6-7 record and were reeling after enduring a 5-game losing streak.
The thought of playing in the Class 1A state tournament was probably the farthest thing from the Huskies' minds at that point.
But an 11-game win streak changed the Huskies' status. Pillager is riding a swell of momentum into the state tournament, which begins Thursday at Caswell Park in North Mankato. The Huskies will play the third-seeded Sleepy Eye St. Mary's Knights in the quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Thursday.
Pillager coach Greg Bennett said the season turned when the Huskies began to shore up their defense and attack pitches at the plate.
"I think the biggest thing was reducing the number of errors," he said. "The girls started playing smart, not throwing the ball around and if we got down we could turn it back around.
"And, the girls got very aggressive at the plate. They were not waiting any more for pitches. If they saw anything good, they were going out and driving it. They got much more aggressive than they were batting at first."
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- Who: Pillager vs. Sleepy Eye St. Mary's
- Where: Caswell Park, North Mankato, 1 p.m. Thursday; loser's bracket 7 p.m. Thursday, winner's bracket, 7 p.m. Thursday.
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At bat, the Huskies are led by junior infielder Hailea Books and her .467 average. Other top hitters include sophomore Sam Macheel .410, junior Kylie Woidyla .369, sophomore Ella Kilchesky .349, senior Miranda Paananen .322 and junior Sam Thomas .302.
Woidyla leads the team with 27 RBIs followed by senior Vanessa Peterson with 25.
"When we started that run, Hailea was batting in the .700s," Bennett said. "In one stretch, we played Pine River-Backus and she was 4-for-4. We played Pequot Lakes the next game and she was 5-for-6. She's been really hitting the ball well. Kylie, Sam Thomas and Sam Macheel are all hitting the ball real well."
On the mound, Paananen is 9-2 with 75 strikeouts in 65.2 innings. Kilchesky is 8-5 with 57 whiffs in 82.2 innings.
"At the beginning of the season, Ella and Miranda were splitting every other game," Bennett said. "In this playoff stretch, Miranda's been pitching them all.
"Miranda maybe has a little more speed and can do more things with the ball. Ella is probably more consistent. She might not have the speed factor, but she's consistently really good."
Sleepy Eye, tied with New York Mills for No. 2 in the final Minnesota Softball Coaches Association rankings, is 22-2 and has won its last eight games. The Knights are led by a talented trio-juniors Ali Beltz and Jody Hansen and senior Anna Lux.
Beltz is batting .600 with five home runs and 40 RBIs. Hansen is at .500 with seven homers and 37 RBIs and Lux .443 with two homers and 23 RBIs.
On the mound, Lux is the Knights' cornerstone with a 19-2 record. In 101.1 innings, she has struck out 117 batters and has a 1.87 ERA. Senior Megan Labat is 2-0 in 25.2 innings. Sophomore Leah Weiss has pitched four innings and is 1-0.
Bennett said he has been moved by the support the community has shown since the Huskies qualified for the first state tournament in program history.
"People I don't even know will come up and say 'Congratulations and good luck,'" he said. "The support they're showing for the girls is absolutely wonderful."
Other Class 1A quarterfinals:
Red Lake Falls (18-8) vs. No. 1 seed Edgerton/SW MN Christian (22-3): Red Lake Falls returns to state for the third time and first since 2013. Edgerton/SW MN Christian is the defending champion and top-seeded team. No. 5 Hayfield (18-6) vs. No. 4 Kimball Area (19-3) --- Hayfield is making its third consecutive state tournament appearance. In 2016, the Vikings lost to Pine River-Backus 5-4 in 10 innings in the consolation semifinals. Kimball, making its second consecutive state tournament appearance and second overall, hasn't lost in 13 games. Carlton (24-4) vs. No. 2 New York Mills (22-2): Carlton ousted long-time Section 7-1A power, Cherry, after two victories in the section final. The Bulldogs are making their first state tournament appearance. New York Mills has qualified for the fifth consecutive season. In 2016, the Eagles defeated Pine River-Backus in the consolation final.