The Cardinal softball team was two outs away from getting a monkey off its back on Wednesday night.
Alexandria has welcomed in Elk River twice and Big Lake once for the opening round of the Section 8 3-A tournament only to fall short on its home field the past three years. On Wednesday, Big Lake was back again for a section quarterfinals game at Woodland Elementary School, and the Cardinals took a 7-6 lead into the top of the seventh inning.
Two Big Lake errors in the bottom of the sixth helped give the Cardinals that late lead. Unfortunately for Alexandria, the Cardinals returned the favor in the seventh as three straight errors and a two-RBI base hit by the Hornets’ Ana Doran gave Big Lake a 9-7 win.
“Softball is an up and down game all the time,” Alexandria third baseman Sarah Bruzek said. “It’s definitely a mind game. All of us just wanted it so bad. I think we were thinking of making the play before it happened. You got to field the ball first before you can throw it, and everyone was thinking of throwing it and what to do with it next. That happens.”
The good news for Alexandria is this team has a second chance on Monday. The Cardinals didn’t have that luxury the past three years as their opening losses meant an end to any hope of a postseason run. The Cardinals will try to bounce back when they play Sauk Rapids-Rice at noon on Monday back at Woodland Elementary School.
“All of us were pumped up,” Bruzek said of wanting to show they could beat a team like Big Lake. “We had the eye black on and the headbands. We were pumped. We were ready for this. What a great season we had, and we thought we could actually make a run in the section, and with the double elimination, we’re still in it. We can still do it.”
Bruzek and head coach Randy Albers both believed that as they tried to put aside a disappointing loss to the Hornets. The Cardinals positioned themselves to get a win this time around, which wasn’t the case in a 12-2 loss to Elk River in the same game a year ago.
Big Lake may be the sixth seed, but that can be a little misleading for a team that plays quality competition from the metro area and in the Mississippi 8 Conference. The Hornets (15-7) beat Monticello 14-7 in the play-in game on Wednesday and took a 3-0 lead after one inning against Alexandria.
The Cardinals (16-5, third seed in 8-3A) could have had a here-we-go-again mindset. Instead, they battled back twice to eventually take a late lead. Big Lake’s Kelli Poffenberger had seven strikeouts her first time through the Alexandria lineup.
The Cardinals started to square up the ball the second time around in the fourth inning. Dani Carlson and Taylor Ellingson both hit the ball sharply to set the table for Jess Syvrud. The senior second baseman didn’t disappoint as she crushed a home run to left-center field that tied the game at three apiece.
“It was crazy,” Bruzek said. “All of us when she was up to bat, there was this gut feeling like, Jess has always done weird things like that. It was just amazing. She hit one out there when we needed it.”
One inning later it was Bruzek’s turn to deliver a big hit. Big Lake scored twice in the top of the fifth before Bruzek came up with the bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the frame. She fouled the second pitch she saw straight back. Then on an 0-2 pitch, Bruzek lined a double to the right-center field gap that cleared the bases.
“[Coach] always tells us to let the first pitch go by if you’re not doing very well,” she said. “Then the second pitch, you swing your solid swing. That’s what I did. I think it was a rise ball, the ball I missed. I thought, you know what? I got my pitch. I got the timing down. I just need to hit the ball. The next time, I got this one and tried to hit it as well as I could.”
Big Lake answered back with a solo home run in the top of the sixth to tie things at six apiece. Emily Kuennen led off the bottom of that inning with a sharp single that skipped under the center fielder’s legs. That two-bag error sent her to third, where she eventually scored three batters later after another Big Lake error at first base. It’s a lead that just didn’t last after the three unearned runs for the Hornets in the top of the seventh.
“The good thing is we’re not done,” head coach Randy Albers said. “We still got life. It’s going to take a little bit of work to get ourselves back in the tournament here, but a couple wins and you’re back in it with the top teams. It’s hard, and it’s a tough loss. There were plays that the girls make nine out of 10 times, if not 10 out of 10 times, but there’s a little added pressure sometimes. That’s just the way it goes. We need to live with the good and we need to live with the bad, so we’ll be fine.”
The Cardinals will try to stay alive when they welcome in Sauk Rapids-Rice for the noon game on Monday. These two teams split during a regular-season doubleheader, with the Storm taking game one 3-2 before Alexandria rallied for a 9-6 win in the nightcap on May 9.
The Cardinals came into the playoffs believing they were capable of making a run in the section tournament. They made things tough on themselves on Wednesday, but that confidence will still be there heading into a must-win game next week.
“Teams like this don’t come around very often, especially here in Alexandria,” Bruzek said. “We’re good. We know that we’re good, and we can make a run, definitely.”