The Road To The 1998 State Final
This is a long article. Stay Safer At Home provides time. The three-part story was written to honor the players and fans from the late 90s. They will enjoy the reading but so will anybody who claims to be a true fastpitch soffball person.
After putting together a great run through the regular season at 17-1 with the only loss coming from Providence Catholic of New Lenox, Illinois, along with a couple of tight regional wins the Indians rallied from a 4-0 deficit in the first inning to win the state semi-final 9-4.
It was on to the championship game.
Back in those days the state tournament was a two-day event but only the Division 1 schools played the first day because they had eight entries while Divisions 2 and 3 had just four each. The semi-finals were all played in the morning at Saratoga Complex in Waukesha. That means that both the Division 2 and Division 3 semis were all played at 9 am. Saratoga is a four-diamond complex.
After the win at 9 am we hung around the park for a while so the players could talk to their friends, families and school friends. We then packed them up and headed back to the Country Inn & Suites hotel where we had stayed the night before. The assistant coaches and Karol had a lunch planned for the girls at the hotel. They’d packed food or perhaps went and bought food for lunch. I surely don’t remember those sorts of details. We ate lunch and hung around at the hotel. Some relaxed,others were really wired and ready to go back to battle. I sat and took it all in all the while sorting out the stories that Pat had told me about the Greendale players, their coach and other comments he had made during our hour-long chat the night before in the hallway outside my hotel room.
The WIAA personnel always scheduled the Division 1 title game at 12:30 while the Division 2 and Division 3 finals were played at 3:30. The reason was because the Division 1 finalists had both won two games the day before while the Division 2 and Division 3 teams had just played earlier so the 3:30 start gave us the opportunity to get lunch,relax a bit and then get back to the park and get ready to rumble.
Greendale at the time had the largest high school enrollment in the Division 2 field statewide. Poynette on the other hand was the very smallest Division 2 school in the state. Some said it was a “David and Goliath” matchup. Our kids didn’t seem to be phased by any enrollment numbers. They played large schools and in large summer tournaments against girls from metropolitan areas and were always in those events on the final day and in the final few games. They were well prepared with great pitching from both senior Kelly Wiese and sophomore Jessie Clark. We had a senior at first base and seniors in right and left field. The rest were juniors. They were all softball players.
A few days prior to the state tournament which was always played on a Tuesday and Wednesday with no night games I had attended the WFSCA ALL District Selection Committee meeting at Hartford High School. Those are always interesting meetings as I listen to coaches talk about the players from their respective conferences. Until 2017 the all district teams and all state teams knew no divisional separation. In the end just 60 high school softball players would be named All State on either First Team, Second Team or Third Team. While the district rep was organizing things and before the meeting started there was chatter between all the conference reps. I was asked what I thought our chances were and my answer was the team that makes the routine plays and gets a great defensive play in there and a big hit or two would win. I didn’t foresee a high scoring game. One of the other conference reps at the meeting was the coach of a team that had lost a close sectional tournament game to Greendale. He talked about their pitching, their hitting, catching an all. He said they were really good and that nobody was going to beat Greendale at the state tournament. They were a shoo in for the title.
I’ve always liked a challenge. Since the get go we taught our kids our idea of how the game of fastpitch should be played. I told them that what they needed to do was create opportunities for my experience as a player and coach to make a difference in any game we played. It remains the same to this day. When we practiced later that day I told the girls the story about nobody beating Greendale. Remember, they were now 24-0 on the year while we had a loss in Illinois. Part of our chat had to do with making routine plays, being patiently aggressive at the plate. Don’t just go up there swinging at anything and everything that’s close. That has never been our mantra. Be patient and you might “GET” a pitch you can handle. Make the routine plays and we’d let the chips fall where they may.
We took infield and watched their two chuckers warm up. Like us they’d been using a two-girl system in the circle all year. It was really a rare state tournament in that respect. Most of the teams, once the number of innings a pitcher could throw went with one pitcher in every game. Many coaches didn’t even want a second pitcher to think about. I’ve always liked to have a dugout full of kids who could win a game for us if we played great defense, had C & C and we’d take our chances. We had both Kelly and Jessie heating up on the sideline down the foul lines while Greendale had their two fireballers, Jenny Bulgrin and Meagan Hautala down their sideline firing missiles. I had taken my radar gun along everywhere and had my cousin get speeds on the Prescott pitcher and on Hautala in that game. If it were to be a seven-inning game I knew we’d strike out somewhere between eight and 11 times. That meant we’d have at least ten other outs to work with to get some runs. In my fastpitch world, outs are the most precious things there are in a game. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at bat or in the field. Twenty-one is a precious number. If I figure we are going to only have 10 outs to work with I better have a solid philosophy on how you will use them to score more runs than the other team. Perhaps not everyone sees a game before it starts in that light but I have always kept that sort of thing in mind when scheming during a game. It’s something I picked up from my mentors like my father, uncle, Bill Krigbaum and the other older guys who I was a bat boy for. Truthfully, I never enter any game with a specific game plan. Instead we just try to prepare the players for anything that will happen and trust that we prepared well enough to handle any crazy stuff that takes place.. I figured that we’d get between four and seven strikeouts (in a 7-inning game) so we’d have to make more defensive plays that Greendale would be forced to get.
At coin flip we won the toss. I like to bat first but not in a state championship game. Runs do not come easily early when two good teams with good pitching square off. It usually takes a couple of a few innings to sort things out.
In the top of the first Jessie had a 7-pitch inning. That was big in my mind. There was a fly to left that Leslie Krigbaum hauled in followed by a fly ball to right that Amy Karman corralled. We got out of the first 1-2-3 with a 6-3 putout Amanda Knuteson to Kristina Crapp. Jessie’s STR1KE score was a whopping 6 out of a possible 9. I want my pitchers to average 4.5 STR1KE points per inning.
In the bottom of the first Bulgrin was throwing gas but Knuteson hit a bullet straight at the center fielder for the first out. That liner brought confidence to our bench. Erin Barnharst followed with a six pitch at bat by battling two Bulgrin slants off for foul balls. With the count 2-2 she laced a double and we had the first base runner of the game and we had hit two rockets. Ellen Howard followed with a five-pitch at bat and a base on balls. Our next two batters went down looking on pitches down and away so we were at 2 of the 11 I thought we might get already.
The top of the second saw Hautala single on her second pitch. They chose to move the runner on a sacrifice bunt and bring up their sixth batter. Jessie uncorked a wild pitch sending Hautala to third with one out so some pressure was mounting already in the second. Sara Sibley, their third sacker, worked Jessie for a seven-pitch at bat eventually drawing a base on balls putting runners on first and third with one out. Everybody watching the game figured they knew what was going to happen next. If you know even just a little bit about the sport you probably do as well just reading this. It’s the state championship game. There is just one and runners on the corners. They stole second base and we had a play on where we conceded the bag at second to make sure they didn’t score the run. With runners at two and three Dana Falzarus their right fielder hit a hot grounder to Knteson. The runners were off on contact but Knuteson had seen this play often and threw hard to Darcy Tompkins behind the plate who tagged Hautala out for the second out. Jessie then walked the #8 batter Tracey Anderson so there were runners at first and second and two outs. Beth Weede hit a ball to Knuteson but she misplayed the play which loaded the bricks and brough the leadoff batter to the plate. She hit a soft pop up to Knuteson at short to end the inning. It was then 1-0 Greendale. Jessie had thrown 25 pitches. Going in I thought she had to stay below 95 to give us a chance. Our half of the second saw Tiffany Krigbaum go down swinging followed by Kristina Crapp taking a called third strike and Leslie Krigbaum flew out to center.
The top of the third saw shortstop and future UW-Green Bay standout Connie Koceja single on the seventh pitch of the at bat. Jessie was more than halfway to our 13-pitch inning goal. Bulgrin moved her to second on a sacrifice bunt with Jessie tossing to Erin at first. Hautala swung at the fourth pitch and popped it up to Barnharst at second for the second out of the inning. Jay Moin then singled to score the game’s second run. Clark coaxed and inning-ending pop up to Knuteson at shortstop. In our half of the third Leslie Kribaum went down swinging and brought Knuteson to the plate. She hit the second pitch for a single. She had hit the ball hard in both at bats. We tried to move her to second on a sacrifice bunt by Barnharst but the ball went off the bat hard and right back to Bulgrin who threw to second to retire Knuteson. In my mind we needed to get a runner to scoring position with a dynamic hitter up next in Howard. I gave Barnharst the steal sign and she swiped it. The inning ended however when Howard grounded out sharply to second. It was still 2-0. We had Bulgrin up to 50 pitches in three innings.
A ground out to Tiffany Krigbaum at third opened Greendale’s fourth. Anderson hit a ball to Clark in front of the circle but we did not make the play. It was our second error of the game and really uncustomary. Things were going to be tougher than I’d thought they might be. She then uncorked a wild pitch sending the runner to second with one out. She followed that with a walk to the #9 batter. She then struck out Talsky, the leadoff kid and then caught Koceja looking to end the inning. Those were her first strikeouts and she threw 20 pitches to get out of there unscathed in terms of runs scored. She was at 70 pitches by then. In the bottom of the fourth Karman went down looking and Tompkins hit a comebacker to Bulgrin who retired her at first. Tiffany Krigbaum hit a ball that ate up the second sacker so she was safe via an error but the inning ended when Michelle Cross went down swinging. It was still 2-0. Bulgrin was then at 60 pitches.
Clark threw her second seven-pitch inning and set the heart of the Greendale order down in order ending it with a strikeout. The first two batters both swung at the first pitch. Kristina Crapp led off the fifth with a single and Leslie Krigbaum moved her to second with a bunt but Knuteson popped up to shortstop and Barnharst went down 4-3. It was still 2-0.
Clark got Sibley to hit to Crapp at first for the first out and got a pop up to Barnharst at second for the second one then she misplayed another one and they had a runner aboard. Barnharst was in the right spot to snare a hot liner at second to end the inning. That would have scored Anderson if it had gone through. In our half of the sixth Howard singled to lead it off. She then stole second and went to third when the centerfielder let an errant throw from the catcher get behind her. We had a runner at three with nobody out. Jodie Manke, subbing for Karman and Tompkins both went down looking and Tiffany Krigbaum flew out to center to end the inning. It was still 2-0.
The top of the seventh was Clark’s third 1-2-3 inning of the game and included her fourth strikeout as she took Koceja down swinging. The third batter of the inning, Bulgrin drew a base on balls but Tompkins’ perfect throw to second to Barnharst cut her down trying to swipe second. It was a good play on their part with the 2-0 lead and only one inning to get a 2-0 win.
Erin Moll went into to bat to lead off the inning but popped out to shortstop. We were down to our last two outs. Crapp then fouled off two straight pitches when down 0-2 and then singled to give us some life. Brenda Reigel then batted for Leslie Krigbaum and hit a roller to first sending Crapp to second. That brought Knuteson to the plate with a runner at two and two outs. She represented the tying run. She took a strike because she was told to. She took a cut at the next pitch as well that was a bit outside and letter high. She smacked hit pretty hard and it just nicked the center fielder’s lacing on the top of the webbing of her glove and got past her. Crapp had been on the run and scored. Knuteson hustled around one onto second and got a sliding triple. It was now 2-1 with two outs and our leading hitter coming to the plate; She also got a take sign on the first pitch and it was a called strike. Bulgrin’s next one was met squarely by Barnharst. It was a liner over shortstop and pretty high. Knuteson raced home with the tying run and I went for broke and was waving Erin home. She got forced wide at third because the third sacker actually obstructed her. She nearly crashed into me as she rounded the bag and wound up in the coaching box. It was a really close play at the plate but she was called out;. I told the home plate umpire that she’d been obstructed but to no avail. I asked the third base ump and she said that he saw it differently. Instead of winning it with a walk-off home run we were headed for extra innings. Later than night while watching the TV sports that play was one of the highlights. Let’s just say that the only person at that game that actually saw what really happened at third was me. She did get forced really wide and was just out. We had tied the game up though with two in the seventh. We were headed for extra innings.
In the top of the eighth Greendale popped up to Knuteson at short before Clark walked the next batter. She got the next batter to ground out to Crapp at first before walking the next batter. Things were very intense. She then fanned Anderson ending the threat. In the bottom of the eighth we loaded the bases. Howard singled for the second straight time. She was a gamer folks, a big timer. Karman then bunted, but Bulgrin misplayed the ball and just like that we had the winning run at second and nobody out. Greendale made a pitching change and brought in Hautala who had tossed a nifty two-hitter at Prescott earlier in the day. They walked Tompkins intentionally to load the bricks. On the third pitch to Tiffany Krigbaum the ball got past the catcher and back to the screen. Howard headed for home. The backstops at Saratoga are just a couple of feet behind the umpire’s feet. The ball hit that screen and bounced right to the catcher who tossed to Hautala who then tagged Howard out. Krigbaum then struck out and when Erin Moll grounded back to Hautala the inning ended. Greendale had avoided disaster.
The top of the 9th was another 1-2-3 inning for Clark and included another strikeout, her sixth one. The bottom of the ninth was also a 1-2-3 inning for us at the plate ending with a ground out off Knuteson’s bat.
The game went to the tenth. Clark had thrown 118 pitches as she prepared to take on the heart of the Greendale order. They had their #3, #4 and #5 hitters due up. Bulgrin swung at the first pitch and singled to left. Clark then drilled Hautala with a hard rise ball putting runners on first and second with no outs. I had Kelly Wiese warming up often leading up to that point. She told me she was good to go. Greendale bunted and moved the runners to second and third but there was one out. With Sibley at the plate Clark threw a wild pitch sending Bulgrin racing home with the lead run. It was 3-2 and one out and another runner in scoring position. Clark settled in a bit and struck out Sibley for the second out. That brought Falzaro to the plate. She worked Clark pretty well and drew a base on balls and that set the stage for one of the most interesting finishes in WIAA State Tournament history. Greendale had runners at first and third and two outs and a one-run lead in the tenth with their #8 batter at the plate. Everyone in the park knew what was about to happen, At least they thought they did.
I knew they’d send the runner at first to second just like everyone else in the park that day did. I called time out and slowly strolled out to the pitcher’s circle to talk to Jessie and the infielders.
The conversation went exactly like this, “Jessie, you’ve really battled but we need to make a pitching change. They are going to send that runner to second and expect us to just let her go. Kelly is coming in. She throws better pitch-outs that you do. Darcy has already thrown two of their base runners out today trying to steal second base. The runner at third is going to stay at third. She won’t even leave the bag. Darcy will throw the ball to Erin at second, she will tag the runner out and end the inning. We will only need one to tie but our second run is going to win this game.”
Jessie agreed that Kelly’’s change ups were always right on. I waved Kelly in and told her what we were doing. “Just make your regular pitch-out and the inning will be over with one pitch. We will get that runner out.”
Kelly took her warm ups. The stage was set. She released that pitch-out and the runner took off for second base. The runner never looked at the plate, just focused on the bag at two. As I expected, the runner at third, Hautala, heard the Greendale coach say, “stay here” and did stay there. However, Tompkins caught that pitch-out in stride, crow-hopped and threw a bullet to Barnharst at second. She caught the throw and tagged the runner out. Wiese had thrown one pitch to end the inning.
We still had work to do however. We were down a run.
Barnharst would be the lead off batter. She worked the count to full on five pitches. The sixth pitch was really high but she swung and missed and headed for first base. On her way she demonstrated some moxie by weaving her way in the chute making a throw by the catcher difficult. She was safe at first. We had the tying run at first with nobody out. Howard was up next. Howard attempted to bunt but only got a small piece of the ball. It carromed of her bat and struck the catcher, Joy Morin in the throwing hand. The impact was so severe that Morin’s hand was split and bleeding. It was a game-ending injury for her. My son had been following Greendale’s team page on the internet during the season. I quickly asked him who they would replace the catcher with. He told me he thought it would be the third sacker. They did indeed replace the catcher with the third sacker, Sara Sibley and moved the left fielder to third base.
There was a lot of drama as you could imagine. We were down 3-2. It was the bottom of the 10th. We had a runner on with nobody out and their catcher was out of the game and the left fielder had moved to third base. In bunt situations there are four key players on defense. The pitcher, the catcher, the first sacker and third sacker. There has to be communication taking place in bunt situations. I met with Ellen and explained things simply, “They have two players out of position right now with an outfielder playing third. We need to make one of those two players field your bunt. If you can get it between the catcher and third we might make something happen.”
I always tell people that it's impossible to hide a weakness in the sport. Sooner or later and usually sooner, the game itself reveals the weakness. Players in unfamiliar positions creates opportunities for he game to reveal them. The ensuing pitch was higher than Sibley could reach, or jump to catch and Barnharst scooted into second on the wild pitch
The next pitch was a strike on the inside half of the plate. Howard did as we had hoped she could. Her bunt was perfectly placed, just up the third base line about seven or eight feet between the infield grass adn the foul line. The catcher had a chance but so did Anderson at third. They both arrived at the ball at the same time, stopped short of the ball, rose up and looked at each other. Neither made a play. Just like that we had the tying run at third in Barnharst and the winning run at first in Howard who had miraculously placed one of the most perfect bunts in a given situation I’d ever seen. I decided to go with my impromptu scouting report from that 11 p.m. visit from Pat the night before and send Howard to second. My hunch told me that they’d concede the winning run going to second. Greendale indeed conceded second base to Howard choosing to depend on Hautala and their defense to save them. That brought up Jodie Manke, She worked the count to 2-2 then took a called third strike for the first out. Darcy Tompkins was up next. I thought about trying to squeeze the tying run home but chose instead to go for the win with a safe hit. Darcy also worked the count to 2-2 and then got rung up on a low and away pitch. We were then down to our final out. Our top three hitters had only struck out once to that point. From number four through nine we had been struck out 13 times. Tiffany Krigbaum had been our clutch hitter throughout the tournament series. However, she was 0x4 with two strikeouts of her own. I feared that they’d intentionally walk her anyway. I would have, in a heartbeat. Hautala rifled the first pitch right past her for a strike. She stepped out of the box and looked my way. I just gave a look that I was confident in her. She stepped back in, took a couple of slow practice cuts and set herself for Hautala’s next offering. The pitch whistled in toward Krigbaum but instead of a whoosh and miss, there was a loud ball/bat collision. She had connected. The ball was a high liner headed for the right centerfield gap. Both runners were on the move. Barnharst touched home and turned around to watch Howard sprint toward the plate. When the winning run was scored, the outfielders had not yet even reached Krigbaum’s blast. She’d done it! She was credited with a walk-off double but it would have been an inside the park home run had the winning run not scored on the play.
We had won our first-ever state championship. "Nobody, had beaten Greendale!" We were the nobody that the coach had talked about at the all district selection committee meeting the week before.
The pitcher of record at that point was Kelly Wiese. She’d entered with us trailing 3-2 and runners on first and third. She had practiced those pitch outs hundreds of times. It’s part of our usual pitching workouts. We’d also work on intentionally walking batters. The practice paid off. However, we have to keep in mind that the pitch was called by the coach because he trusted three players to do what they’d been taught. Once Tompkins had the ball secured she needed to make a quick, hard and accurate throw to Barnharst at the bag at second base. Credit Tompkins with perfect execution, also the catch and tag.
Wiese was credited with the win. She threw one pitch and the winning pitcher. Let’s not forget the job that Jessie Clark had done though. She was tough throughout the first 9 ⅔ innings. She kept us close and worked out of some intense jams and gave us a chance to win it. We had been down to our last out in the seventh and 10th innings and responded. Clark worked 9 ⅔ innings, allowed only four hits, three runs, struck out seven and walked seven (one intentionally). On our STR1KE scheme she averaged 3.33 points per inning.
The celebration was great but got cut short. The extra inning game had taken us into the late afternoon. The city of Waukesha grounds crew told us that we’d have to cut our celebration on the field short because they had to get the field ready for the mens’ slowpitch games that night.
We revelled in our success. We stopped at the Hwy. N exit on I-90 on the return trip as it would be the last time we’d gather as a team wearing those uniforms. It was a great moment, a forever memory for everyone one of us.