Burlington hosts Elkhorn Tuesday in sectional semifinal

Gracie Peterson (middle) embraces Ashley Schmalfeldt (right) and Josie Klein (left) moments after Thursday’s win. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

 

By Mike Ramczyk

sports@southernlakesnewspapers.com

BURLINGTON – Coaches constantly preach the value of experience.

Senior leadership.

It’s something that can separate the good teams from the great teams, and usually the most high-pressure situations reveal a team’s level of experience.

Enter Thursday’s WIAA Division 1 softball regional championship.

The host Burlington Demons, a No. 2 seed and Southern Lakes Conference champions for the first time in 30 years, were in a world of trouble against the upset-minded Oregon Panthers.

An errant throw put Oregon up, 1-0, and that lead held until the fourth inning thanks to stellar pitching from starter Kenadee Nelson.

The packed home faithful enjoyed the balmy, 85-degree weather but seemed stunned about what they were seeing.

That’s when Burlington seniors Josie Klein, Ashley Schmalfeldt and Jaina Westphal stepped up, as they’ve done all season, and made sure the Demons would live to see another day.

Klein walked and scored in the fourth off Schmalfeldt’s single, and Westphal added some clever base-running in a pivotal two-run fifth to propel Burlington to the 3-1 victory and their first regional title since 2016.

Klein, who went the distance on the mound, retired nine of the final 10 batters she faced to close the door on any Oregon upset hopes.

Burlington (18-5) advances to Tuesday’s sectional semifinal at home against Southern Lakes foe and sixth-seeded Elkhorn (16-9), which upset No. 3 Fort Atkinson, 7-6, on Thursday.

It will be an all-SLC sectional, with Wilmot and Westosha both winning Friday. They will face each other at Wilmot Tuesday, and the winner will play the Burlington-Elkhorn winner with a state berth on the line.

“These kids just keep plugging,” Burlington coach Gary Caliva said. “They don’t give in, and they don’t give up. Once we were up 3-1, I relaxed a little bit. The defense plays so well, and Josie knows that if she gets in a little bit of trouble, they’ll help her out.”

 

Jaina Westphal turns the corner at third base before scoring all the way from first base to provide the go-ahead run Thursday. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

Offense awakens second time through lineup

Klein went 2-for-2 to lead the Demons, but it was her plate patience that helped Burlington get on the board. Klein led off the fourth with a walk and advanced to second.

Then, Schmalfeldt wrapped a sharp base hit up the middle to tie the game at 1-1. Kya Kafar added a single in the frame, and the Demons finally showed some semblance of life offensively.

Klein went 1-2-3 in the next half-inning, thanks to two put-outs from the sure-handed Schmalfeldt at third base, along with a routine fly ball to Hannah Ketterhagen in right field.

Then the flood gates opened for the Demons in the bottom of the fifth.

Again, patience paid off, as Westphal led off with a walk. Next up was Maddie Berezowitz, who dragged what seemed like a routine grounder back to the pitcher. But a low throw went under the first baseman’s legs all the way to the fence, and the speedy Westphal scored all the way from first to give the Demons a 2-1 lead.

Finally, Klein helped her own cause with an RBI single to score Berezowitz and make it 3-1.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking, because we only beat them by one in the playoffs yesterday,” Schmalfeldt said. “We all went into the game confident, because we have such good chemistry, and it felt good to get the first big hit to get things rolling.”

Two runs was more than enough, as Klein recorded her second 1-2-3 inning in the sixth thanks to two infield pop outs and a strikeout looking.

Jenna Schmalfeldt reached on a second throwing error by the pitcher in the sixth, and she stole second but was stranded.

The defense continued to shine in the seventh, as junior catcher Emily Zuleger made a nice running catch after bobbling the ball to open the frame. Zuleger got the start in place of senior Halie Behnke, who started most of the regular season but is no longer with the team.

Klein quickly got two more outs before surrendering a walk to bring up the tying run. But the poised pitcher bounced back to force another ground ball to Schmalfeldt, who planted and fired across the diamond for the final out.

“She’s so composed now,” Caliva said of Klein. “It’s incredible just to watch her play. She doesn’t let things bother her anymore. That last walk, she could’ve let that bother her and she just did not.”

Klein said she was just playing catch all game and was in the zone.

“Our energy is always so high, and that’s what helps us get back in the game,” she said. “The second time through the order, we focused a little more and knew what we had to do.”

 

The Demons pose with their regional title plaque after Thursday’s win. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

Familiar foes at sectionals

Caliva said the team’s recipe of pitching, defense and timely hitting has been there all season, and he’s confident that will continue Tuesday against Elkhorn, an SLC foe the Demons swept in a doubleheader during the regular season.

“We’ve been saying, ‘Just take care of business,'” Caliva said. “And they are. They come and they’re ready to play, and they give you everything they have.”

Will the Demons need to score more runs in order to get through sectionals and advance to the ultimate goal of state?

“You just have to score more runs than the other team, that’s all,” Caliva said. “As long as the pitching’s good, we’re fine.”

Schmalfeldt said the Demons have the mental maturity to keep winning.

“I think the pressure’s always on, but I think with all of our success, I think we’re all confident we can do anything at this point. So it’s exciting,” she added.

Josie Klein rares back to fire a pitch in the seventh inning as Ashley Schmalfeldt focuses at third base. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

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