Photo gallery: Class 4A, Section 4 championship: Stillwater vs. White Bear Lake
In the end, the Bears, 21-3 overall and fourth in the Class 4A coaches' rankings released May 29, were able to pull that prop from under wraps and put it to use.
After falling to fifth-ranked Stillwater 6-4 in a nine-inning Game 1, the Bears held off the forever rallying Ponies 6-5 in Game 2 to wrap up the Section 4 championship.
"Those were incredibly high-pressure and intense games," Bears coach Kaity Wightman said. "The girls went through all the ups and downs of both games. I'm just incredibly proud of how much fight these girls showed."
White Bear Lake junior pitcher Chloe Barber personified that fight. She pitched all 16 innings, squeezing out the last drop of fuel from her energy tank. She struck out 19 batters, including 14 in the first game. She fought fatigue, mental and physical, through most of the second game and relied on teammates to make plays in the field.
"I was exhausted, Keira was exhausted," Barber said, referring to Stillwater senior pitcher Keira Murphy, who also pitched all 16 innings and kept the Bears' biggest sluggers, in particular Barber, from doing a lot of damage. Murphy, who entered the game with a 0.65 ERA, struck out six batters in the first game, five in the second.
"Stillwater is just such an amazing team," Barber said after the postgame celebrations. "Both teams should be going to state, in my opinion. My team was just so gritty today."
The Ponies, the 2021 Section 4 champions, ended their season at 21-5 overall.
It seemed as late as the seventh inning that top-seeded White Bear Lake might be able to beat the defending section champion Ponies in the first game. But second-seeded Stillwater, as it had done throughout the game, came out with a big two-out hit.
Barber struck out Murphy to start the seventh, then hit Gabby Lafavor with a pitch before getting Sarah Dollerschell to ground out to short. Amber Scalia, hitting in the ninth spot, singled to the left side of the infield to score Lafavor and tie the game at 2-2. Alexis Monty reached on an infield hit and Madelynn Johnson, who entered the game in the fifth inning as a pinch-hitter, singled to drive in the go-ahead run.
The Bears sent the game to extra innings when sophomore catcher Heidi Barber, who reached base on six of her eight plate appearances over the two games, singled and scored on Jordyn Meyer's single in the bottom of the seventh.
After a scoreless eighth, Stillwater again got a big two-out hit. Chloe Barber, growing tired, walked two batters and gave up a single and a run-producing sacrifice as the Ponies took a 4-3 lead in the ninth. Taylor Gray then tripled to the right-field fence to drive in two more runs and put Stillwater ahead 6-3.
Stillwater rallied again in the second game, closing a 5-1 deficit to 6-4 on Lafavor's two-out, two-run single in the fifth. Barber tipped her hat to her current rival and future teammate. Lafavor, a senior, will be playing at Missouri-Kansas City next season while Barber will join her there after she completes her senior year at White Bear Lake next spring.
Murphy, Stillwater's senior pitcher, remained strong throughout the two games. But defensive miscues in the bottom of the first resulted in two Bears' runs and returned momentum to the top-seeded team. The Ponies finished with four errors in the second game and seven over the two games.
Despite the uncharacteristic errors, the Ponies remained in the fight until the very end. "I'm just incredibly proud of the way this team battled back," Stillwater coach Angie Ryan said. "That's just softball. It's what makes it so amazing and so heartbreaking at the same time."