A history book has to start somewhere.
From now on, when people look to see the history of the Division 5 state softball tournament there will forever be one name where the inaugural champion is listed: McDonell.
The McDonell softball team's run to a Division 5 state championship is The Herald's 2017 story of the year. It was a season that could've went off the rails several times on the team's trip to Madison, but it ended with the Macks hoisting the second WIAA state softball championship in school history.
The Macks entered the season with plenty of experience and motivation to do some serious damage. McDonell finished 19-4 in 2016, second to eventual Division 4 state champion Thorp in the Western Cloverbelt before being upended by Alma Center Lincoln in the regional finals. The Macks had the experience around the diamond to make a lengthy postseason run, but talk at the start of the season wasn't focused on getting to Madison. At the start of the season when she asked her team about season goals, seventh-year McDonell coach Chelsea Seckora didn't want to know how many games the team wanted to win or how many home runs each player wanted to hit, but rather what characteristics it would take to make the season a successful one.
With the cast of players the team had coming back, Seckora knew the program had the ability to make a run but she also knew that talent alone doesn't decide who wins a state championship.
“The best team doesn’t always win," Seckora said. "The best team wins more often but they don’t win in the playoffs every time. I knew from the first day of practice we were a good team and there was nobody that was going to take that away from us.”
McDonell won six of its first seven games, including a 22-0 win at Fall Creek on April 18 to give Seckora her 100th career coaching victory. A doubleheader split with Altoona on May 2 kept both teams firmly in the hunt at the top of the conference title race. McDonell would lose just one more game, a 5-3 defeat to Cochrane-Fountain City at the Pirates' tournament on May 6, before their regular season finale at Osseo-Fairchild. That matchup against the Thunder would be a memorable one, but not in a positive way for the Macks. Osseo-Fairchild rallied for seven runs in the bottom of the seventh to stun McDonell 15-14. Altoona would defeat Cadott one day later to claim the undisputed conference title.
But in the initial moments and day after the game, Seckora saw a team ready to move on.
“We were very disappointed because we knew that most likely lost the conference for us," Seckora said. "We knew in conference play that was a pretty big deal and that was very disappointing but it was one of those games where we didn’t play our best, but it was not in our favor. Megan (Baier) was throwing pitches and couldn’t get them past people and they were taking swings and putting the ball where we weren’t standing. It was the perfect storm against us. After the disappointment set in, it was like we washed our hands of it and the next day at practice we were 100 percent back to business.”
The Macks took care of business convincingly in regionals, scoring lopsided wins over Prentice (12-1) and Eau Claire Immanuel (15-0) to claim a regional championship and set up a sectional semifinal showdown with Gilman at Casper Park. Like McDonell, Gilman is a perennial contender in the area and Seckora and her team expected a strong battle with the Pirates.
“Gilman is well coached, well disciplined," Seckora said. "That’s why it’s always a good game (against them) because they really know how to play softball well on many different levels. It was a nail biter all the way around.”
The game lived up to the expectations as both teams traded shots but neither could put the other away. Gilman struck first with two runs in the third inning and held that lead until the sixth when Lisa Bremness came through with a two-run home run to even the game.
“I remember Megan (Baier, the pitcher), after every inning they didn’t score, the look on her face was like ‘Please, somebody score a run’," Seckora said.
Andrea Hiess would come through for the pitcher after her 10th consecutive scoreless inning when Hiess delivered a walkoff home run to start the bottom of the inning.
“She was a very focused, determined athlete," Seckora said of Hiess. "And the good thing about our lineup was there wasn’t a time where I was thinking we’re at the bottom of our lineup (with) 6-7-8, it’s probably not going to be an inning where we’re going to score. Every inning our team gave us the opportunity to score.”
McDonell advanced to the sectional finals to face Birchwood at Casper Park, a game the Macks broke open with eight runs in the sixth inning to score a 10-0 win to advance to state to meet Belmont.
After a second-inning Belmont run, the Macks scored four times in the third and once in the fourth to take a 5-1 lead. But the Braves answered with three runs in the sixth before the Macks stranded the tying run on base. In the seventh inning a strikeout and groundout put McDonell one out away from the state title game. Belmont second baseman Briana Ernst drilled a line drive to center field, a ball that centerfielder Abby Opsal made a diving catch on to move her team one victory away from a state championship.
“Kudos to her because it was a line-drive diving catch straight to center field, and if that ball gets underneath her it’s at least a double and that means the tying run is in scoring position," Seckora said of Opsal's catch.
Dandy defense would be the key for the Macks two days later against Blair-Taylor in the Division 5 state title game. McDonell trailed 3-0 after three to the young but talented Wildcats. But the Macks would weather the storm and respond, scoring twice in the fourth inning before taking the lead with three runs in the sixth. McDonell would add three more runs in the seventh to get a little breathing room.
After two groundouts and a single, the Wildcats were down to their last out when Cierra Curran would ground out to Hiess at shortstop, giving McDonell the 8-3 win, the program's second state title and first Division 5 state championship in state history.
“When you win it’s just the biggest sigh of relief I’ve ever had in my life," Seckora said. "There’s so much pressure for about three weeks because you never know if it’s going to be your last.”
The 8-3 final on the scoreboard was obviously the difference but another column on the board at Goodman Diamond also told the story with eight errors for Blair-Taylor and zero for the Macks.
“That game was a great summary of us as a team," Seckora said. "Megan (Baier) struggled with the strike zone early but as a team we didn’t have an error in the state championship game. For a Division 5 school to not have one error in the championship game, I think that sums up what kind of defensive team we are. We were aggressive and extremely capable and focused and disciplined to make plays under pressure.”
The team celebrated with photo ops at the state capital and singalongs on the bus ride home before a ceremony honoring their championship the next day at McDonell. In the days and months since the championship, Seckora has had the chance to catch a passing glimpse at the gold trophy at school functions and can't help but smile whenever that opportunity comes.
“It’s every coach’s ultimate goal to get one of those state trophies for their team and for their school," Seckora said. "When I see it, it just brings a huge smile to my face because you know how much heart and work and passion goes into it for the athletes and the families. Every time I see it I get a big grin on my face.”
A strong five-player senior class — Josie Verbick, Natalie Lorentz, Hiess, Bremness and Laura Schwandt — helped set the tone for the team's success. They walked off Goodman Diamond in their final high school athletic event as champions, but also left an impact that will continue to be seen as the team looks to defend its title next spring.
“The good thing about having a state championship trophy is having girls on the team that know how hard it is (to get)," Seckora said. "It’s great to have one but there’s a lot of heart and sweat and blood and tears that goes into that trophy and I only think you understand that process when you’ve won it. We’ve got 10 girls on our team right now that know the dedication and heart and soul that goes into getting that trophy. That’s the biggest gift the seniors that have left us could give us. The discipline to know how much work it takes.”