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Twice is nice for Hancock: Bulldogs earn second straight regional softball title

Bulldogs earn second straight regional softball title

Sean Chase/Iron Mountain Daily News Hancock catcher Brooke Koskela (13) slides into home plate during the MHSAA Division 4 Regional 25 semifinals against Ishpeming on Saturday at Marion Park.

NORWAY — In beating a very familiar foe, and then a team that has proven dangerous all season, the Hancock Bulldogs softball team earned their second straight trip to the state quarterfinals Saturday in Norway. They knocked off the Ishpeming Hematites, 9-6, in the semifinals and then held off the Gogebic Miners in the final, 6-4, to win their Division 4 regional championship.

With the wins, the Bulldogs, who improved to 27-5 this season, advance to face Hillman on Tuesday at Pickford High School in a game that will have a 5 p.m. start.

While the Bulldogs had to defeat a pair of tough opponents to advance, they also had to deal with the extra challenge the weather brought with it, but coach Craig Biekkola was pleased with how his team managed everything.

“The weather was a challenge, but the girls played well enough to win a couple games,” he said.

In their semifinal matchup against the Hematites, whom the Bulldogs have seen several times in regional games in recent years, Hancock found themselves trailing 3-0 before they even came up to bat.

“So, in the first game, Ishpeming scored three runs in the top of the first,” he said. “That’s not the start you want to have.”

Craig Biekkola had a chat after the half-inning ended, reminding the girls that they have been in this position before, and that they know how to battle through it.

“When the girls came in after that inning was done, we had a little talk with them and said, ‘Hey, you know, there’s a lot of game left and don’t get rattled,'” he said. “They didn’t. Then we were able to score four in the bottom of the second to take the lead, and we held on to that lead the rest of the game.

“They’ve come from behind before, and it’s nothing new. So, having that experience, especially this season, of being able to come back, that’s been huge for us.”

The rally in the second started innocently enough as pitcher Sadie Biekkola popped a ball up, and reached first safely thanks to a defensive error. Center fielder Ella Storm then hit into a fielder’s choice, but both runners ended up safe. Third baseman Sydnie Scholie then doubled to center field, allowing both runners to cross home plate. Designated hitter Megan Pelto then singled to second base, bringing Scholie home to tie the game.

Hancock wasn’t done, as first baseman Alice Larson laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Pelto into scoring position. Right fielder Mallory Sporalski then drilled a line drive to center field, which gave Pelto the opportunity to score and give the Bulldogs the lead at 4-3.

The offense continued in the third. Catcher Brooke Koskela, who had been struggling hitting in the second half of the season, came through with a single to left field. She got to third by stealing second and then later taking third on a passed ball all while Sadie Biekkola was at the plate.

After Biekkola struck out, Storm was hit by a pitch. With Scholie at the plate, Koskela stole home on a wild pitch. Scholie then walked. Pelto hit a sacrifice fly that scored Storm and put Hancock up 6-3.

Things continued in Hancock’s favor in the bottom of the fourth as Sporalski led off with a single. Shortstop Kaelyn Rouleau then reached on a defensive error. Left fielder Sofie Freeman laid down a sacrifice bunt to move both runners into scoring position. Koskela then doubled to center field, scoring Sporalski. Sadie Biekkola then walked, loading the bases. Two batters later, Scholie was hit by a pitch, which scored Rouleau. Pelto then walked, which brought Koskela home.

The Hematites got two runs back in the fifth and another in the sixth, but it was not enough to catch the Bulldogs in the end.

“We’ve had a lot of close games with them the last few seasons,” said Craig Biekkola. “We’ve, other than the one that they beat us earlier this year, we’ve come out on top generally against them. A lot of those games have been close, and that’s what we expected yesterday, and it turned into a very close game, and it was a high intensity game from both sides.”

Sadie Biekkola went seven innings in the game, striking out eight, walking six and surrendering 10 hits.

With about a 90-minute break between the end of the semifinal game against Ishpeming and the start of the championship game against Gogebic, Craig Biekkola went back to a conversation he had had with his team prior to the weekend.

“We had talked to the girls prior to going down there, and said, ‘Obviously, we know what to expect out of Ishpeming, and we know that’s going to be a big game for us, but that we can’t look past anybody.’ Gogebic had split with Calumet, and they had split with Houghton, so we knew that,” he said. “They were capable of beating some good teams.

“So, once we got through that Ishpeming game, we had like an hour and a half in between the games, which was nice. So, they were able to relax, and, I guess, reset. We came out and got the lead early in the second game. It wasn’t easy by any means. Gogebic, they were scrappy. They played tough.”

Hancock got things started quickly as Rouleau struck out, but reached first base on a dropped third strike. Two batters later, Koskela singled on a ground ball to left field, which brought Rouleau home.

That 1-0 lead did not last beyond the bottom half of the opening inning, proving the Bulldogs’ coaching staff’s concerns valid at that point. In the third, Hancock broke the deadlock with three runs.

Second baseman Josie Hembroff laid down a bunt to lead off and she got to first safely. Rouleau struck out again, but also made it first safely in spite of that, due to another dropped third strike. Freeman then hit a sacrifice fly, which scored Hembroff. Koskela then laid down a bunt and reached first. Sadie Biekkola then laid down a sacrifice bunt, which scored both Rouleau and Koskela before the play came to an end.

The game remained 4-1 in favor of the Bulldogs until the fifth. Freeman got things started with a one-out single to right field. Two batters later, Sadie Biekkola doubled to center, scoring Freeman. Biekkola then scored, with Storm at the plate, on a wild pitch. Storm walked, but Scholie grounded out to end the inning.

Gogebic stormed back with three runs in the bottom of the seventh before Sadie Biekkola got her fifth strikeout of the game to end things. She finished with three walks and five hits given up over seven innings.

“We were up 6-1, and it was a comfortable lead, but, in the playoffs, you learn especially that getting those last three outs, a lot of times, are the toughest ones,” said Craig Biekkola. “Even if you’ve got a big lead, the pressure amps up a little bit.”

Fortunately, the Bulldogs have a lot of past playoff experience to lean on in those moments.

“We’ve got the experience over the last three seasons of a lot of playoff games, and we haven’t always come out on top, but having Sadie go through so many of those games, she doesn’t get rattled on the mound, and she’s learned to have a short memory out there,” Craig Biekkola said. “The rest of the team, with all those playoff game experiences, are learning the same thing.”

FACING HILLMAN

The Bulldogs will face Hillman on Tuesday. The Tigers are 39-3 after winning their regional tournament over the weekend.

“From what I understand, they’ve got two really good pitchers and their lineup is formidable,” Craig Biekkola said. “They’re putting up a lot of runs, so we’re going to have to play well.”

Biekkola expects nothing less from any team in the final eight in the state.

“At this point in the season, when you’re into the quarterfinals, and hopefully beyond, every team that you’re going to face is going to be high quality competition, and we’re going to have to play well,” he said. “I mean, we’re going to have to, obviously, score some runs, and play some solid defense, and get some good pitching, to be able to hang and compete. But, I also think that we’ve played a pretty tough schedule, and we faced some of the top pitchers in Division 4 in Michigan. Also, some of the teams that we played against from Wisconsin have been high quality competition.

“So, like I said, we’re going to have to play well. We know that we’re running into a team that is very deep, and very talented. But, I like our chances. At this point, it’s anyone’s game. It’s a one-and-done-type thing, and I hope, and I feel, that we’re confident that we’ll give our best effort.”

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