NECEDAH — Coming off a third-place finish in the conference standings last year, Necedah entered this season hoping to be a factor in the battle for the Scenic Bluffs Conference title. A month and a half later, the Cardinals stand alone as conference champions.
Necedah (13-0 overall, 13-1 Scenic Bluffs) swept a doubleheader against Royall (6-9, 4-8) by scores of 5-4 and 10-3 Tuesday, May 15 in Necedah to clinch the outright Scenic Bluffs championship, their first since 2006. It’s the school’s first conference title in any sport since the football team won one in 2011.
Since dropping their season opener to Richland Center in a non-conference game in late March, the Cardinals have rattled off 13 consecutive wins — all in conference play.
“I told the (the girls) at the beginning of the week that this is the time I’m going to let you be selfish. We didn’t want to share (the conference title) and we basically controlled our own destiny,” Necedah head coach Tracy Anderson said of clinching the conference title outright. “Obviously Royall gave us good competition for that, but it means so much to these kids.”
To clinch the title and keep its perfect conference record intact, Necedah had to survive a pair of tightly-contested, dramatic games with Royall — including a walk-off win and a victory in extra innings.
In the first of two five-inning games in Tuesday evening’s doubleheader, the Panthers struck first with a pair of runs in the top of the first inning on a walk, two errors and a fielder’s choice. Neither team would score again until the bottom of the fourth, when the Cardinals tallied two runs of their own.
First baseman Miah Hansen singled and center fielder Mekenzie Mootz was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning. A strikeout and a fielder’s choice left runners at the corners and Necedah needing a two-out rally. Right fielder Gabby Wilhorn and left fielder Tawny Knutson delivered with back-to-back singles to tie the score at 2-2.
In the top of the fifth, Royall responded with two more runs. Second baseman Rachel Waterman and catcher Emily Olson both singled and Waterman came around to score on a single by pitcher McKenzie Baeseman. Olson would then score on a sacrifice fly courtesy of third baseman Destany Lawry. As a result, Necedah came up to bat in the bottom of the fifth needing two runs to tie and three runs to win.
After shortstop Lindsey Murphy flied out to start the inning, third baseman Braedynn Jones singled and Hansen reached on an error to put runners on second and third. Mootz delivered with a two-RBI single to tie things up at 4-4 and put the potential winning run on base. A sacrifice bunt by second baseman Kyra Saylor moved Mootz to second and brought designated hitter Hannah Horak to the plate with two away.
Horak came up clutch, singling to right field to score Mootz for a walk-off win and cap off the comeback win for the Cardinals.
As a team, Necedah recorded seven hits by seven different players in the game. Olson was the only player for either team with multiple hits, going 2 for 2 with two runs scored and a walk. In the circle, Isabell Negaard picked up the win after allowing four runs (two earned), five hits and two walks while striking out one in five innings of work. Baeseman took the loss after surrendering five runs (two earned), seven hits and two walks while notching a pair of strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings.
In the second game of the doubleheader, Necedah once again had to rally back from an early deficit.
In the bottom of the first, the Panthers loaded the bases with no outs thanks to an error, a Baeseman single and a Lawry walk. Olson later scored on a wild pitch and left fielder Kaylin Gruen drove in Baeseman with an infield single to give Royall the 2-0 lead. The Panthers would tack on another run in the bottom of the second thanks to first baseman Claire Herek’s two-out RBI single.
Now facing a three-run deficit, Necedah got two of them back in the top of the third without recording a single hit.
With one out, the Cardinals drew three straight walks to load the bases and scored their first run on a Hansen sacrifice fly. Two more walks pushed another run across before Royall finally retired the side.
Wilhorn led off the top of the fourth with a double and later advanced to third on a wild pitch. She then scored on Murphy’s RBI groundout with one away to tie the game at 3-3.
The Panthers had their chanced to regain the lead in the fourth and fifth innings, but couldn’t capitalize either time. In the bottom of the fourth, they had a runner at second with one out. But Baeseman popped out to third baseman Jones, who then doubled off Olson after she led too far off of second base to retire the side.
In the bottom of the fifth, Royall put the potential winning run on second with no outs after Lawry reached on a leadoff single and then stole second. Negaard induced a pair of popups and ended the threat with a strikeout with Lawry at third to send the game to extra innings.
In the top of the sixth, the Necedah offense came alive, putting up seven runs courtesy of four singles, two walks, two Royall errors and a double. The Panthers had no response in the bottom of the sixth, as Negaard retired the side in order to secure the win.
Each team collected six hits among six different batters in the second game. However, Necedah drew 10 walks while Royall only walked twice. Negaard once again picked up the win, striking out four and giving up three runs (one earned) in six innings pitched.
It has been an emotional, difficult season for Negaard, whose father, James Negaard, passed away in April at the age of 51. But she’s continued to be the team’s rock in the pitching circle and her teammates have rallied around her, making their incredible run to the program’s first conference title in over a decade all the more special.
“It does make it a little more special,” Anderson said of the team rallying around Negaard. “And it means so much, especially to the seniors — to the hard work they’ve put in.”