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Softball players open season with a W

<i>Bob Burrows photo</i> Wildcat junior McKel Heebink slides across home plate to tie the score on a wild pitch and tie the game, 2-2, in the second inning of the Cats' season-opener against Ellsworth April 1 at the high school field. The Cats scored a run in the sixth that proved to be the difference in a 5-4 win over the Panthers.

Wildcat softball coach Rick Hansen said his team made its share of mistakes in its season opener against Ellsworth April 1. But it also did enough things right to put a 5-4 victory in the books.

"This was a good first game for us," he said. "I was really impressed with how the girls kept their mental focus after mistakes."

A prime example of that focus was in how the Wildcats scored their fifth and final run of the game in the bottom of the sixth inning. Nikki Plunkett led off the inning with a single, stole second, then moved to third on a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt by Bethany O'Leary.

Plunkett would later score on a passed ball to give the Cats a 5-3 lead. Ellsworth scratched out a run in the top of the seventh, but the Wildcat defense held strong and the Cats held on for the 5-4 win.

"The sixth inning was textbook softball," Hansen said about the Cats' final run. "Bethany did a great job executing the bunt. Without it, we may not have scored and would have had to hit in the bottom of the seventh inning."

Ellsworth jumped out to a 2-0 lead with an unearned run in each of the first two innings. But the Cats came back with two outs in the bottom of the second when Rachel Matzek walked, McKel Heebink singled and Jaimie Althoff walked to load the bases. Back-to-back wild pitches allowed Matzek and Heebink to score and the game was tied, 2-2.

Ellsworth got a run in the top of the fifth to take a 3-2 lead, but the Cats answered with a pair of runs in their half of the inning.

Lauren Cernohous led off with a single and moved to second on a wild pitch before scoring on a base hit by Masy Engel. Matzek then doubled in Engel to give the Wildcats a 4-3 lead.

The Cats' run in the sixth proved to be a big one when Ellsworth scored a run in the top of the seventh to make the final 5-4.

"Ellsworth doesn't quit, but neither do we," Hansen said. "We had a couple of mistakes in the seventh but the girls kept their composure and finished nicely."

Engel had two hits in the victory while Plunkett, Cernohous, Matzek, Heebink and Pam Obermueller had one each. Plunkett also stole two bases while Hayley Heschke walked twice.

Cernohous went the distance on the mound to earn the win, allowing two earned runs on six hits while striking out four and walking two.

Hansen said after the game the girls realized they still have work to do.

"Though the girls felt good about the win, they acknowledged they have a lot to learn, which is good to hear as a coach."

The Cats traveled to Bloomer April 6 and won't play again until April 22 when they host Chippewa Falls in a Big Rivers Conference doubleheader beginning at 4 p.m.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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