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Pepin Softball -- As She Tells It - AJ Brunner Cried All The Way To First Base

03/18/2020, 5:45pm CDT
By Matt Bellerive - Head Coach,. Pepin High School

As she tells it -- Brunner thought she'd grounded out to second to end the championship game

1995 State Champions

The Lakers posed for this photo on the field at Saratoga Complex after winning it all in 1995

Hey Bob, I attached the last game book of 1994 --

Because I believe the 1995 season started immediately after that shocking loss in the regional final in 1994! 

At that time I was just a fan but I think that everyone who has been on board with this program over the last three decades would agree. That was one of the most excruciating losses in program history! Pepin took a 9-5 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning and before you knew what happened, Elmwood and their faithful were celebrating a 10-9 walk-off win while the ladies and fans in blue were in shock! 

Fast forward nine months. The 1995 Lady Lakers were about to start the season led by six extremely hungry seniors wanting to finish business that saw them all at Waukesha as sophomores only to get nipped by eventual champion Pecatonica 1-0 in the semifinal game. In this day and age with seeding, that would have been the championship game. 

The seniors on that 1995 team had a pre-season get together and decided that the most important thing season was, to win the state title. PERIOD! There were no other goals. That was it! They made it clear to the entire team that SOFTBALL was top priority and no outside distractions would be tolerated! In my humble opinion, when that leadership comes from the team captains and not the head coach it is 1000 times more effective! 

As the season started, they cruised through the first three games winning by a combined total of 40-1. Game #4 brought on the old foe from Elmwood.The Ladies would prevail and redeem their regional final meltdown in a tight 6-5 victory. The very next game they would take on a Division 2 powerhouse at the time, New Richmond who would later get beat in the D2 state title game by Wisconsin Dells! The ladies would prove they were for real that day in Pepin with a 3-1 victory over a highly ranked D2 team. Cruising through the next four games with ease would set up the rematch with Elmwood for the 1995 season. Again, the Lady Lakers would top their huge rivals in another tight game,this time  6-5. The ladies would then again put it in cruise control for a few games, winning easily. That would set up a very daunting task in taking on Winona Cotter, a private school from a large Minnesota town who had a great softball tradition year in and year out. Another statement game for the ladies with a huge win, Pepin 6 Winona Cotter 2. The next four games were like scrimmages to get ready for regionals with the ladies winning by a combined score of 55-3. When the regionals started the first two games were blowouts against Whitehall and Alma/Gilmanton. That would set up a regional championship that would bring plenty of hype.

The Winona Daily News covered Cochrane-Fountain City  all year and had them on quite a pedestal... and deservedly so. They were 18-1 and we were 19-0. The game was to be played in Pepin. Let’s not forget that at that time I was just a fan, not a coach. There was a group of us that followed the team and never, ever missed a game! We spent the home games tailgating right outside the right field fence. Earlier that year, now HOF coach Jim Haines drove the four wheeler out to the fence before a game and handed up a rolled up banner to a tailgater and said, “I thought you guys should have this!” We unrolled it and looked at a cartoon picture of a guy sitting on some bleachers. At the top it said in big letters.."Laker Bleacher Bums". 

We hung it up faithfully from that day forward! Back in the day, tailgating was grilling out and drinking plenty of adult beverages! Always.The local cop would stop by and grab something off the grill and there was not an issue with anything! He would hang out with us and watch the game! (HE NEVER HAD A BEER). As that game got started we shut down CFC in the top of the first inning and quickly put up two runs in the bottom half then added one  in the third, four more in the fourth and three in the fifth to wipe them out 10-0. It was a statement game for the ages! The pitching of Nikki Patraw was too much for the Pirates that day! Beating an 18-1 team 10-0 was a statement! OFF TO SECTIONALS!

Back then, the  sectionals were played in one day. We were in Loyal and by far the favorite. The girls were not themselves that day at all. Nerves? Big stage? Sectionals? Not sure, but they were not themselves. We beat New Lisbon 5-3 in the first game and waited. 

Greenwood would be the team in the way to get back to Waukesha in a game that would prove no matter how good you are, somewhere along the journey you can find a moment where things just went your way. We were about to come upon that moment vs. Greenwood. Greenwood took a 2-0 lead into the sixth inning. The girls found a way to tie it up going to the bottom of the sixth. We could not hold them in the bottom half though and Greenwood was three outs away from Waukesha with a 3-2 lead!  

That was not the plan! We led off the top of the seventh with a pop out to first.With one down we got a base on balls followed by a single. Two on and one out Our #9 hitter comes up and smokes a line drive right back up the middle. However the Greenwood pitcher reached out and snagged for out number two. The top of the order A.J. Brunner stepped tothe plate. She tells this the best. She hits a dribbler to the second sacker. If she were writing this part of the story she would tell you that she was crying all the way to first base. As the Greenwood  second sacker throws to first to send Greenwood to state, the throw comes in low (I am Injecting our moment of DIVINE INTERVENTION). AJ slid into first base and kicked the ball out of the glove of the first sacker. The ball gets by the first sacker and the two runs are ushered across the plate. Another base hit by Jenny Nelson then scores AJ and suddenly the Lakers are up 5-3. Nikki shuts them down in the seventh and the” Pepin Faithful” are getting the hell out of Loyal as fast as they can! 

BACK TO STATE! 22-0 and 2 to go!

The first game at state would be against the Wausaukee Rangers. They were not ready for us .The ladies exposed some weaknesses in them and went on to win 10-0 in 5 innings! That meant 23-0 and 1 to go! 

Who would we play? 

Well, the other semifinal game would be Oakfield vs. Elmwood! EXCUSE ME! GO OAKFIELD! 

The whole idea of playing Elmwood again was not a very appealing idea. Yes, we had beaten them two times already! No, we were not looking forward to game number three! It was terrifying! They had nothing to lose! We had everything to lose! It was really, really hot  at the Saratoga Complex that day. I will never forget that. With the help of our leadoff batter’s two doubles. One from the left side and one from the right, the girls would not be denied and when the 3-4 putout was recorded for the final out in the seventh inning the scoreboard screamed --  Pepin 4 Elmwood 2! 

The first ever state title for Pepin in any sport had just happened. The party was on! The girls had just capped off the perfect season! 

Everyone who was lucky enough to be there and experience the entire season will never forget the efforts of those amazing Laker girls: AJ Brunner, Jenny Nelson, Jill Nelson, Nikki Patraw, Sarah Elberg, Karla Kosok,Tanya Newcomb, Ali Kircher, Brooke Kosok, Mel Westberg, Jenny Wallin, Laura Kosok, Beth Peters, Sharla Peterson, Traci Nelson, Jehnon Hetrick and Shavonne Mercer.

It was quite a ride!!!!

Publisher’s Note: In 2002 Matt Bellerive married the winning pitcher in that championship game, Nikki Patraw. They have two children, Payton who is a sophomore who plays baseball and is an all conference football player at Pepin, and Bella, a fourth grader and great fastpitch player. The 2004 season marked the first year that Matt Bellerive went from being an adult beverage consuming Tailgater to Assistant Coach. This would be his 17th year in the program. (See the Season Preview Matt provided for everyone to read farther down on the list of stories herein) If you ever get to Pepin contact Matt and tell him to meet you for an adult beverage at the Third Base Bar, Last Stop Before Home. Seriously, that’s the name of the Pub in Pepin. But hurry to get there as of yesterday it  now closes at 5 PM.

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