MADISON, Wis. — The tears flowed freely after the final out of the final game of the season was recorded.
These weren’t sad tears, though.
They were the tears of champions.
Peyton Johnson squeezed home the initial run in the decisive sixth inning, Nikki Knebel followed with a two-run single, and Sadie Willborn threw another gem, and second-seeded Belmont toppled No. 1 and previously undefeated Blair-Taylor, 7-1, in the WIAA Division 5 state championship game Saturday at Goodman Diamond.
“There was a lot of tears, I’m not going to lie,” Knebel said. “When I went and hugged Coach (Jeff) Hodgson, I lost it a little bit. He means the world to me, he’s a great coach. Couldn’t ask for a better one.”
Playing in the state title game for the fourth time in program history and the first time since 2007, the Braves (26-1) claimed a companion gold trophy for the D-4 title they won in 2002.
“It hasn’t fully hit me yet,” Willborn said. “It kinda feels like we’re still supposed to play another game, but we’re not. It feels amazing. It feels incredible.”
It was the second trip to state in three seasons and seventh overall for Belmont, which lost in the 2017 semifinals. The Braves were state runners-up in 2006 and 2007.
“I hope our kids always set their sights at the highest prize. They did, and to get here and to win it feels satisfying,” Hodgson said. “We’ve had so many crushing defeats, mainly because we’ve been in it so many times — not state, but regionals, sectionals. When you’re in all those games, you just feel like if you keep throwing something at the wall it will stick, and this year it stuck. And it stuck because of the quality of our seniors.”
Two days after throwing a two-hit shutout in the semifinals, Willborn — one of those six seniors — scattered four hits and two walks, striking out four.
This time, Willborn found herself in a pitchers’ duel. Blair-Taylor ace Lauren Steien was perfect through the first three innings and allowed only two baserunners prior to the fateful sixth inning.
Willborn, meanwhile, got some help from her catcher, Abby Althaus. After allowing a one-out single in the bottom of the second, Althaus cut the runner down trying to steal second. In Thursday’s semifinal, she picked Tri-County’s first baserunner off first base.
“She’s huge,” Willborn said of Althaus, another senior who has been her batterymate all four seasons. “She has an amazing arm, always has. I know when somebody gets on that she can throw them out.”
Steien quickly recorded the first out of the sixth, but No. 9 hitter Bridgett Miesen reached on an error and Willborn singled to give the Braves their first scoring threat.
Johnson got the sign for a squeeze slap and laid it down perfectly. Blair-Taylor’s third baseman threw the ball over the first baseman’s head and into right field, allowing the first run of the game to score as the throw back to the plate sailed to the backstop.
“That’s one of my tools I wanted to use most in the state tournament and it worked,” Johnson said. “It was perfect.”
Knebel followed with a two-run single that took a bad hop over the shortstop’s head. Ashley Knebel walked and took second on fielder’s indifference, and Althaus brought home the fourth run on a squeeze bunt.
“I go up to the plate with so much confidence because it could be my last at-bat,” Knebel said. “Once I hit that groundball, I knew I had to get my butt down to first because I didn’t think it was good enough. But, anything can happen in those moments and that’s why I busted my butt and so did the players that were on second and third.”
McKenzie Reuter brought home another run on a sacrifice fly to center, and Mackenzie Shelnutt reached on the Wildcats’ fourth error of the inning to make it 6-0.
“We just had confidence in everything,” Althaus said. “We had that little swagger that we always have. We pushed through it and we just kept scoring, scoring, scoring.”
After issuing a two-out walk in the second, Willborn retired the next 11 batters until Blair-Taylor leadoff hitter Ari Charles reached on an error with one out in the sixth.
“How this game went is who we are,” Hodgson said. “Sadie and Abby are going to keep us in the game until we come around (at the plate). And when we come around and get the ball rolling, we just kind of roll over people.”
Lauren Kidd’s RBI double scored Charles and trimmed the Braves’ lead to 6-1, but Belmont added another run in the seventh on Johnson’s RBI double.
Blair-Taylor got a leadoff single in the seventh and a two-out error put runners at the corners, but Willborn coaxed a foul out to Althaus behind the plate to end it.
“When that ball popped up, I knew I had it, and I was like, ‘Sadie, I am coming for you,’” said Althaus, who met Willborn in a big hug between home and the pitching circle after the final out. “I was crying, but a happy cry, because I was just so happy for us and how far we made it.”