May 23, 2023 at 8:05 p.m.
Moment marks Melrose’s only state trip
Some members of the 1998 Melrose Area Lady Dutchmen softball team were surprised when told it was the team’s silver anniversary.
“Can’t believe it’s been that long,” said Jill (Schoenberg) Yarke, infielder.
“25 years already,” texted shortstop Stacey (Funk) Stine. “Wow.”
It’s fitting they seemed surprised. The team had put together an unexpected season to reach the Minnesota State High School League State Softball Tournament.
The trip came as part of a state-studded spring season for Melrose. The golf programs competed well, the baseball team played in the state championship for the second year in a row and the track and field program, with future Olympian Amanda Thieschafer and Kim Heinen competing at state, won the second-place team trophy. Those teams had proven, returning talent. Softball, though, came to the season with questions.
“We had a lot of shoes to fill from the last year,” said Terrell “TZ” Zimmerman, head coach. “That team went 16-6. We knew what our juniors and seniors could do. Assistant coach Garry Freeman, who had coached the JV, told me we had some sophomores that had the ability to help us. They came through and blended right in.”
The potential might have been there, but by any measure, it was inexperienced. Few of the players had ever been in varsity games.
“We had only two seniors that year,” said Lisa (Inderrieden) Lahr, who started at first base as a sophomore. “We started, I believe, four 10th graders in some games.”
The seniors were catcher Jana (Lieser) Spanier and second baseman Stine, who played varsity in previous years.
A big part of the solid defense was junior pitcher Sara Weber. She finished the year with a 3.48 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 110 innings.
In most games, ninth-grade outfielder and pitcher Steph (Lieser) Mayers; sophomore infielders Lahr and Yarke; sophomore outfielder Jessie Hinnenkamp; juniors Weber, Ruth Primus, Nancy (Rademacher) Leitheiser and Linda Thull; and designated hitter Angie Kiess took to the field.
Coming in at key moments with pinch hits and late-inning defense were junior outfielders Sara Berscheit and Amber Winter. Sophomore pitcher Bethany Athmann and infielder Annie Schmidt joined the team for the postseason run.
“We had lots of talent even though we were a young team,” Stine said.
The team’s focus was defense.
“Jana was very vocal behind the plate and was able to get the team fired up,” Yarke said. “Also, I couldn’t really make a bad throw as Lisa could stretch into the splits just to catch a ball.”
Young they were, but they were not unfamiliar with how to play fastpitch. All had played on the JV level. There was something else that may have helped them.
“A lot of us were from the small towns surrounding Melrose and grew up attending amateur baseball games every weekend,” Yarke said, “There were five of us from Spring Hill that year alone.”
The team usually held opponents to less than five runs, and only one team scored 10 runs on them.
“We were a selfless and cohesive team, dedicated to one another, and determined to do what we needed to do to come away with the victory,” Primus said. “We left it all out on the field.”
The team had the offensive skills to play in any game it came to. Stine was a .500 hitter who drove in 34 runs. Spanier led off and stole bases. Leitheiser was, according to Zimmerman, the best bunter on the team. Kiess could hammer the ball and Primus came through with RBI hits. Yarke and Berscheit delivered in the clutch, Hinnenkamp and Mayers both had speed, Inderrieden could hit hard and Thull, Winter, Athmann and Schmidt all had moments of pinch hitting and pinch running.
“We hit the ball well and we had speed on the bases,” Stine said.
Melrose started the season winning five in row, the first of three such streaks in winning the conference title. It may have been a late-season conference win over previously-undefeated Litchfield that started dreams of a state trip.
The team entered the playoffs with a 13-6 record and as the No. 1 seed. Those wins, some over established powers, fueled a hope not even talked about when the season started.
“The excitement grew and the realization at the potential we had of being the first Melrose softball team to make the state tournament came with each successive win,” Primus said.
A bye and a 16-0 shutout over Upsala put the Lady Dutchmen into the sub-section championship against Albany. The Huskies held a 1-0 lead until the fifth, when Primus blasted a two-run double to score Spanier and Stine.
Lady Dutchmen trailed 5-4 going into the final inning of the Section 6A semifinals against Brandon-Evansville. Then, Melrose started to hit, using a nine-run seventh for a 13-5 win.
Melrose hit well in the 7-2 championship game, though most recalled the defense that turned three double plays. As they kept putting out Morris batters, Stine remembered getting excited.
“Everyone wanted to make history, but how close could we get?” she said. “We wanted it for the team and for the school to get to that state level.”
The win set off a celebration for an unexpected season. Lahr noticed it even among the coaches.
“Both are not people that show a ton of emotions, but I think that we always had a pretty special place in their coaching careers,” she said. “The smiles when we won the section were pretty big.”
The state tournament games were played in North Mankato. When Melrose went to state, it had a noticeable vehicle.
“The parents had our team bus all decorated,” Yarke said. “They even had homer hankies made.”
Melrose finished 1-2 at state. It lost 10-0 to powerhouse St. Bernard’s but won 3-2 over Red Rock Central/Westbrook-Walnut Grove in the playbacks. The Lady Dutchmen lost 9-2 to Winona Cotter in the consolation game. That finish did not tarnish memories of a great season.
“This was a memorable season for a great group of young ladies,” Zimmerman said. “The team experienced a season full of memories that will be theirs forever.”