The Burlington softball team proudly displays its state runner-up trophy to fans Saturday in Madison. (Rick Benavides/SLN)

 

Who else saw this coming?

No, I mean come on, who actually saw this coming a month ago, two monts ago, even three months ago?

If you would’ve told me back in April that by mid-June both the Burlington softball and baseball teams would compete at the state tournament, I would’ve told you that maybe you need to see someone that could help with that.

And if you would’ve said that both would not only be at state, but be legit threats for state titles at state, I would’ve ran away and never talked to you again.

Little old Burlington, on the verge of a state title?

Well, after one roller-coaster ride of a week in Madison and Appleton, this athletic program keeps proving the haters wrong.

With a little hard work, dedication and team chemistry, anything is possible.

As of April 2018, the Burlington softball team hadn’t beaten former state champion Westosha Central in 10 years, people. And Wilmot? Consider that a long-shot victory as well.

But it only took May and June, and the Lady Demons went from pretenders to a team that crushed the Falcons three times and handled a mighty Panthers squad.

A first conference championship in 30 years became a first state tournament appearance in 30 years.

And while a lot of teams would’ve been happy just to make it all the way to Madison and represent the Southern Lakes Conference, Burlington wasn’t satisfied by any means.

They wanted the whole enchilada, and they nearly got it.

In a tournament that seeded the top four teams for the first time, Burlington somehow slipped to seventh with their 20-5 record and long absence from the big stage.

But once they hit the field, the Lady Demons played like the favorite. With 12 straight wins and the hottest pitcher in the state, Josie Klein, Burlington’s offense was an immediate juggernaut, scoring nine runs against second-seeded Chippewa Falls in a 9-1 thrashing.

Then, Burlington’s encore was a 12-7 win over No. 3 Oak Creek.

What more did the WIAA need to see to respect these girls with a proper high seeding?

Jaina Westphal, the dynamic leadoff batter that combined sheer hitting ability with blazing speed and slick-handed defense, may have been the tournament’s best player. The Division 1 Valparaiso recruit went 8-for-10 over the weekend, including a 3-for-3 title game.

And if it wasn’t for possibly their worst game of the season in the championship game, a 7-1 loss to Sun Prairie, the Lady Demons would be state champions for the first time since 1984, an era when girls didn’t even use the windmill windup and certainly couldn’t throw rise and drop balls.

Unfortunately, whatever could go wrong went wrong for Burlington, with three errors in the first three innings, including two in a back-breaking six-run third for the Cardinals.

And the dominant Demon offense just couldn’t get anything to fall or catch any breaks. They ran out of steam.

But, oh what a glorious evening Saturday was. A sea of Demon Orange flooded an entire side of bleachers at Goodman Diamond on the UW-Madison campus.

Hundreds of softball lovers made the 90-minute drive from Burlington in support of the Lady Demons, and a program that didn’t even have a varsity team until 1978 was broadcast live across the entire state on Fox Sports Wisconsin.

High school softball has come a long way, and Burlington was a proud representative. The girls conducted themselves with pure class, as “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train pumped up the team on the bus before every state game.

The bond formed in the three-day softball odyssey is one that will last forever, and while emotions were shown with tears and hugs after it was all over Saturday night, perspective was gained.

It was one of the greatest runs in local sports history, and the team is beaming with pride – proud to show out for their community.

“We’ve had such a fun year with this group,” said assistant coach Tim Burd after Saturday’s game. “This is a great senior group, and I’m so proud of every one of them. Our bench is the best in the state. We’ve got a great supporting cast, seven juniors that are coming back next year.”

“It’s an emotional ride. They were on a high, they were doing everything right. Today, we made some mistakes we haven’t made in a long time. It happens to everybody.”

Burd said team captains Jaina Westphal and Josie Klein are special.

“They don’t allow people to get down,” he said. “They keep lifting them up, and we keep moving forward.”

Congrats, Lady Demons, on displaying that fighting spirit and inspiring a Burlington community and an entire state.

“This is our best group we’ve ever had, and we’ve had a lot of good groups,” Bird said.

“They’re friends first and teammates second. And club does help.”

 

Burlington senior Derek Koenen (left) celebrates Tuesday after scoring the Demons’ only run at state while teammate Trey Krause looks on. (Rick Benavides/SLN)

A will to be the best

That same fighting spirit was evident for the boys.

The Burlington baseball team may have been mentioned as a favorite to win a third straight Southern Lakes crown at the beginning of the year, but everyone knew the hitting was going to take a dip with big boppers like Dale Damon, Zach Campbell, Jacob Lindemann and Aarond Sturdevant gone to graduation.

Add on Aaron Mutter, Cal Tully, Tanner Strommen and more, and hangover from the 2016 state championship was almost gone.

On Tuesday, Grant Tully was really the only starter remaining from that historic title team, as these new-look Demons had pitching for days but not really any bona fide sluggers or batters that struck fear in opposing pitchers.

But after an 8-6 start, the Demons just continued to improve, and scratch and claw, and the wins began piling up with 12 of 13 to end the season.

Behind Wilmot and Waterford with a few games to go in conference, Burlington won out, sweeping the Panthers and Delavan-Darien to capture an unprecedented third straight SLC title.

Then, picked as the 2 seed behind No. 1 Kenosha Tremper, Trey Krause and Trent Turzenski mowed down the entire city of Kenosha with dominant pitching in playoff wins over Indian Trail, Bradford and Tremper.

The hitting came alive at sectionals, and everyone started getting into the act.

By state on Tuesday, a rubber match with Arrowhead, a team the Demons beat for the state title but got smoked by last year, seemed like a fair fight even though the Warhawks were four games better in win-loss record and featured a kid hitting .516 that was committed to Indiana and a beast committed to play linebacker at Iowa State.

A daunting lineup filled with mashers quickly succumbed to the devastating curve of Krause, and guys like Derek Koenen (two hits) and Tully showed their state experience and nearly helped the Demons pull off the upset before falling, 3-2, due to some missed opportunities.

But the expectation has now become winning at state, when the same thought may have sounded crazy only a few years ago.

That’s a credit to this amazing coaching staff, as head coach Scott Staude and pitching coach Bob Lee continue to get the absolute best out of each kid, regardless of talent level.

With a record three straight state tournament trips, Burlington baseball is officially among the state’s elite.

Staude actually believed the Demons could win it all, and that level of confidence is wonderful to see, no matter the odds.

“There’s a belief in a tradition we’ve installed, and it’s rolling right now,” Staude said. “The kids believe they can win, they really do. Quite frankly, if they didn’t think that way, it would be more disappointing. You want to be the best out there.”

Burlington softball and baseball, two underdogs only a few weeks ago, quickly became the favorites thanks to their belief in each other and play on the field.

What more can you ask for?

 

 

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