Schmalfeldt’s 3-run blast sparks five-run first inning

 

Look, ma, we won! Burlington’s Hannah Ketterhagen (from left), Caitlyn Matson, Leah Zinnen and Maddie Berezowitz wave to their parents seconds after the Demons won Thursday’s state quarterfinal, 9-1, over Chippewa Falls. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

By Mike Ramczyk

sports@southernlakesnewspapers.com

Apparently, someone didn’t get the memo about the Southern Lakes Conference.

It makes sense, a little, that the Burlington Demon softball squad wasn’t seeded in the top four of the eight-team WIAA Division 1 state tournament, with its first trip to Wisconsin’s biggest stage in 30 years.

The eight D1 head coaches decide on the seeds, via a conference call, to determine the top 4 seeds, with the others unseeded.

Against No. 2 seed Chippewa Falls Thursday afternoon, the Lady Demons only needed a few minutes to prove they belong among the state’s elite.

Josie Klein was steady as ever, and another Ashley Schmalfeldt home run, her second in the last three games, sparked a five-run first inning as Burlington pummeled the Cardinals, 9-1, in a state quarterfinal at Goodman Diamond on the UW-Madison campus.

Falls knocked off highly-ranked and favored Stevens Point in a sectional final and featured a pitcher with a 1.16 ERA, but none of that really mattered to the Demons, who picked up their 12th consecutive victory (21-5) and continued their reputation this spring as giant-slayers.

Burlington advances to a WIAA Division 1 state semifinal Friday night at 9 p.m. against unseeded Slinger (23-2), who beat No. 3 Oak Creek, 6-5.

 

Josie Klein, Gracie Peterson and Jaina Westphal celebrate after getting out of inning Thursday. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

Relaxed on the big stage

While nerves and the enormity of the biggest moment in the softball program’s recent history could’ve played a factor early, the senior-laden Demons, buoyed by a constant, supportive roar of chants and songs from their vocal dugout, flipped the script in the opening inning, jumping all over Falls hurler Nicole Crumbaker and taking all of the pressure off with a 5-0 cushion.

“Heck of a start, wasn’t it?,” said a wide-smiling Gary Caliva, head coach of Burlington. “Our defense was just absolutely stellar today. We’ve done this all year long. Josie pitches well, and we have timely hitting, which has been our recipe.”

Though the team’s first two playoff games involved dramatic comebacks, Burlington jumped on Westosha early in the sectional final before Thursday’s effort.

Caliva wasn’t kidding about the phenomenal defense.

Up 5-0 in the top of the third, Falls had perhaps their best chance to get back in the game, but after shortstop Gracie Peterson fired to Kya Kafar for one out, Sophie Heller attempted to score from third.

Kafar’s throw was on point, and catcher Emily Zuleger applied the tag in time for the bang-bang third out.

Burlington turned three double plays and featured dazzling, diving stops on the infield with running catches in the outfield, and committed one error to Falls’ two.

In terms of the underdog seeding, Caliva stays grounded and makes sure his kids focus on playing softball. He said that helped his girls relax.

“They really don’t care who they play or where they play them,” said Caliva, whose squad continues a tradition of nine straight years where an SLC team makes state.

In the last 10 years alone, Union Grove and Westosha Central have each won two state championships, while Wilmot was D1 runner-up last year. The Grove and Delavan-Darien both reached Madison in 2016.

“It’s a little humbling to be in that group (SLC state teams) now. The girls were really relaxed and focused today. Every game before we start, we stress focus, energy and confidence.”

“And we have the loudest dugout in the state.”

 

Klein fired seven innings of five-hit softball, walking two and striking out two, while her defense recorded three double plays. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

A first inning to remember

In the first inning, Jaina Westphal was hit by a pitch to start the game.

She stole second and scored on a Maddie Berezowitz single.

Crumbaker couldn’t settle down, as she hit Klein, and both runners advanced on passed ball.

That set the stage for Schmalfeldt’s bomb, her fifth of the season.

The long, majestic blast carried well over the left-field fence thanks in part to picturesque summer sunshine and humid temperatures in the 80s.

Schmalfeldt used to watch state softball in person as a little kid. Now, she’s living a dream. It’s safe to say her excitement helped fuel her game-altering home run.

“It feels so great to be here, I never thought it was possible to come here and actually play,” she said after the game. “I remember looking past the pitcher on the big scoreboard and seeing my face, and thinking this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I didn’t want to screw it up.”

Westphal finished 2-for-3 at the plate, while designated hitter Bridi Allen added two hits.

Klein, who scattered only five hits, two of them in the seventh, struck out two and walked two, but mostly pitched to contact, allowing her sure-handed teammates to take over.

“She was composed, relaxed, and she did what she’s done all year,” Caliva said of Klein. “She throws strikes, puts the ball in play and our defense cleans it up.”

The senior pitcher got her traditional swings in and chomped an apple before the game, like usual, and she continued her dominant season.

“Every year, our team comes here to watch a state game, and being on the field is so awesome. I can’t even describe it,” Klein said.

“I was a little nervous on the way here, but once I stepped on the field, I was excited. I know I can trust my defense, and it’s so great. If I walked someone, I knew they would pick me up, and they did with the double plays.”

“We all have confidence in each other,” Schmalfeldt added. “There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that we’re capable of doing anything. That’s what’s keeping us whole. We’re all doing it as one.”

 

Small ball produces insurance runs

In the fourth, Burlington scored with small ball after making an early statement with the long ball.

Jenna Schmalfeldt led off with an infield single, and Westphal banged a clean single up the middle.

Later, Berezowitz’s chopper increased the lead to 6-0.

Then, another passed ball moved Berezowitz to second and allowed the speedy Westphal to score, extending the lead to 7-0.

Allen wrapped an RBI single for insurance in the sixth, and Ashley Schmalfeldt tallied her fourth RBI, a sacrifice fly to deep left.

Caliva was able to clear the dugout, with pinch-runner Leah Zinnen scoring a run along with Caitlyn Matson, Sophia Gonzelez, Hannah Ketterhagen and Ariana Carney all seeing action in the frame.

“Our bench has been great all year, they’ve supported those kids, and those kids supported them,” Caliva said. “It was really nice to give them a chance to get them out on this stage.”

 

After a diving stop, sophomore shortstop Gracie Peterson fires to first base for the out. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

Like mother, like daughter

Klein said this is only the beginning, and it means a tad more to her.

Her mother, Candy Fiebelkorn, was a member of the school’s only state softball title in 1984.

Can this team repeat that extraordinary feat?

“It would be awesome to win again and be able to share that with her,” Klein said.

No worries, though, mom isn’t pushing it. She stays hands off and lets dad work with Klein on the softball side.

Regardless, she gushed with pride after the game.

“This is awesome,” Candy said. “The game was a little slower-paced back then. There were no windmill pitcher, so it was different. We were bunters, and we had a lot of speed.”

“Halfway through the season, they really started to gel. It was like ‘We’re doing this.’ My husband helps her with her pitching, and she usually hits at home before a game. I kind of stay out of it, and let her do her thing.”

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