A heart-to-heart conversation helped stoke the flame of a fire that powered the Gilman softball program to a place it hasn’t been in more than a decade.
The Pirates (21-4) return to the state tournament for the first time since 2006 on Thursday when fourth-seeded Gilman squares off with top seed Blair-Taylor (27-0) in the Division 5 state semifinals at approximately 7 p.m. at Goodman Diamond in Madison. Gilman enters the matchup on a 10-game winning streak, a run that started after a team meeting one day after an 11-2 loss to Loyal on May 7. Gilman coach Brian Phelps and his staff had noticed the team has been guilty of scoreboard watching in recent weeks and it was addressed.
“We had kids that were watching the scoreboard to see how other conference schools were doing and they were already looking at scores from other teams in the regional and I told them gang we’ve got to do this one game at a time,” Phelps said. “I said we have to take care of our business and the rest of it will take care of itself.”
Phelps used the example of last season’s Milwaukee Brewers team as it rallied from a multi-game deficit to win the National League Central Division championship and made a run to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.
“We have to go out there and take care of one game at a time, one inning at a time, one out at a time, one pitch at a time and that’s been our mantra since that time and they’ve really bought into it and done a great job of just worrying about us,” Phelps said.
Since that conversation on a rainy Wednesday afternoon in the Gilman High School gymnasium, the Pirates have not lost. The Pirates won the Eastern Cloverbelt Conference championship before outlasting second-place Greenwood 1-0 in 10 innings in the regional finals. Gilman won a slugfest over Loyal — a team that worried Phelps entering the postseason due to its offensive ability that had just upset two-time defending state champion McDonell — before scoring a 9-3 win over Hurley in last Thursday’s sectional final.
Phelps noted his team’s close-knit nature as well as its cool demeanor as primary traits for this spring’s success.
“They’re just very confident,” Phelps said. “They’re very relaxed and they’re very tight as a group. They really do a great job of picking each other up.”
Katie Webster and Addison Warner have shared the pitching duties this spring and served as big bats in the Pirate lineup. Webster had a .525 batting average with an on-base percentage close to .600 entering sectional finals while Warner had a team-best five home runs, including one early in the sectional semifinal win against the Greyhounds.
Grace Grunseth has a team-high 32 runs batted in while Montana Birkenholz has 10 doubles for a team with nine players hitting at least .379.
Phelps is in his 26th season leading the program, one he took over the spring after graduating from the now defunct Mount Senario College in Ladysmith. Phelps has built the program into a consistent contender not just in the area, but among smaller schools in this part of the state. Two years ago the Pirates went to 13 innings before falling to eventual state champion McDonell 3-2 in the sectional semifinals.
The Pirates have been the talk of the town this spring, breaking back through to the state tournament for the first time since before most of the roster were in grade school. It’s meant a flurry of congratulatory texts from former players, fellow coaches and umpires as well as local fans and businesses offering to pick up the check whenever he and his family step out for a bite to eat.
“It’s really cool for any town but I think in small towns your sports programs become a real rallying point and we’ve been much more competitive in all three of our girls sports this year,” Phelps said. “Our boys baseball team put together a nice spring and it’s a big sense of pride for your community when these things happen.”
The Pirates face the top seeded and unbeaten Wildcats, who are making their third straight trip to Madison. Blair-Taylor lost to McDonell in the state championship game in 2017 and was blanked by Oakfield 2-0 in last year’s state semifinals. Armed with a once young roster that has seemingly grown up under the lights of Goodman Diamond, Phelps believes the pressure is on the Wildcats and not his Pirates.
“I told the girls when we got to sectionals that everybody you play is here for a reason. Everybody is here because they’re a good team,” Phelps said. “Nobody just got lucky and I feel we’re a good team and we can go out and we’re quite capable of playing ball with anybody in my opinion.”