At Bielenberg Sports Complex in Woodbury, New Life Academy catcher Malorie Giere(10) caught against Holy Family in a game. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii)
New Life Academy lacks the resources of many of Minnesota’s top high school athletic programs.
But the school’s softball team makes the most of what it has.
The Eagles have competed in eight consecutive Class 1A state tournaments, and won four state titles in a row from 2008 to 2011. With an enrollment of about 300 students, the Woodbury-based school doesn’t always have enough players to field a junior varsity team, but talent has never been an issue.
“I kind of compare [us] to the Duke of basketball,” coach Mick Ramey said.
The Eagles, who lost in the state championship game last year, are favored to reclaim the title this year. As of May 6, they had defeated three Class 2A teams and one Class 3A team en route to an 8-1 record. Despite several early-season injuries, the team has dominated most opponents.
That kind of success has become the norm for New Life Academy, although this year’s team has more balance than previous teams.
“Five, six years ago, we had four or five core players, and the rest were fill-ins,” Ramey said. “Now we’ve got some pretty solid players all the way through the lineup.”
Many of the Eagles’ current top players joined the team during its championship runs. Junior captain Valerie Hohol started in seventh grade and became a captain two years later.
Hohol has been especially important to New Life Academy’s success because she is the team’s main pitcher. She has had to follow in the wake of sisters Rebekah and Danielle Schmidt, who had successful college careers after graduating.
The Eagles have taken the transition seriously, starting Zwith a banquet after the 2011 season.
“Bekah brought out a torch and handed it to Val and said, ‘Here’s passing the torch right now,’ ” Ramey said. “She stepped in and just did a stellar job.”
Hohol is one of four captains on this year’s team. Another, junior catcher Malorie Giere, became a captain after her freshman year.
Hohol and Giere lead with standout performances on the mound and at the plate. Through seven games, Hohol had a 5-0 record and a 2.03 ERA. Giere was batting .714 with 15 RBI.
Giere said the captains also try to make the younger players “fall in love with softball.” That’s a difficult and important task for New Life Academy, which emphasizes fundamentals in practice and expects good results to follow.
“People expect a lot from us, and it’s not necessarily fun,” Hohol said. “It’s a challenge because we set high goals for ourselves — we want to live up to those.”
Even if the Eagles fall short of their goal of another state title, they’ll have made their mark on the Minnesota softball scene.
“There’s no going back right now,” Ramey said. “I’m sure at some point, I’ll have less talent, but we’ve got extremely good techniques and stations and coaches.”
Charlie Armitz is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.