Panthers end run this season with State Championship
After missing the State Tournament last season for only the
fourth time in 16 years, the Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH)
softball team entered this spring with its sights set on returning to Madison.
Led by the return of eight starters, the Panthers opened
this season as the third-ranked team in Division 1, and faced a schedule filled
with the top teams in the state.
Following a pair of early losses in the spring, SPASH went
on to win 20 of its final 21 games, as the Panthers made their return to
Madison, where they ended the season with a State Championship.
“We’ve been working all year for this,” said senior catcher
Jordan Kawlewski. “We took it one game at a time, and then we found ourselves
in the right position.
“And then we made the most of it,” she said.
“I knew we’d be a good team, the question was, ‘how good
were we going to be?’” said SPASH softball head coach Tom Drohner. “And as the
year went on, we started getting better and better and better.
“And before you know it,” he said. “We’re playing close to a
championship-level of softball.”
SPASH lost Second Team All-Wisconsin Valley Conference (WVC)
outfielder Maggie Gruber and second baseman Lizzie Fleeson from last season’s
team that finished 24-5 overall and came up a win short of advancing to state,
after it fell to Chippewa Falls 4-3 in the Sectional Finals to end the Panthers’
run of four consecutive trips to Madison.
SPASH brought back a veteran core this spring, led by
four-year starters in Second Team Wisconsin Fastpitch Softball Coaches
Association (WFSCA) All-State catcher Kawlewski and Third Team WFSCA All-State senior
third baseman Shaylee Kluck, as well as three-year starters in Second Team
All-Wisconsin Valley Conference (WVC) senior first baseman Payton Gaber, Second
Team All-WVC senior right fielder Hannah Worzella and two-time WFSCA All-State junior
pitcher Aubrey Drohner.
Second Team All-WVC junior Brittney Flugaur, who moved from
shortstop to second base, and Second Team WFSCA All-State sophomore center
fielder and NCAA Division 1 University of Wisconsin recruit Ally Miklesh also
returned as starters, while sophomore Halle Pavelski took over in left field
after seeing part-time duty as a freshman, senior Sierra Niewiadomski became
the starter at shortstop on defense and junior Brooke Tuszka earned a full-time
role during the season as the team’s designated player.
“This team was built on offense,” said coach Drohner. “We
played really good defense, but we could hit.”
Sophomore catcher Rachel Sullivan, sophomore pitcher Maddie
Fink and junior outfielder Megan Nolan joined the team as reserves, while
SPASH’s group of 11 seniors also included Morgan Dobratz, Elizabeth Joseph,
Kelsey Shuda, Hailey Ehr, Riley Terpstra and Riley Zempel.
The Panthers opened their season with a 24-0 win over Wausau
East April 5 and won their first five games of the season, including a 13-0 victory
at eighth-ranked and reigning State Runner-up Watertown April 13, before they
fell to top-ranked and defending State Champion Westosha Central 14-0 April 16
in a game where Aubrey Drohner didn’t pitch and Miklesh was out.
SPASH came back with four wins in a row to improve to 9-1,
before it fell 6-0 April 22 to Hortonville, which moved up to No. 5 in the
Division 1 rankings following the win, while the Panthers dropped to 9-2 and
fell to seventh in the rankings.
SPASH pulled out a 4-3 victory at D.C. Everest April 26 when
Aubrey Drohner escaped a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the seventh inning
by striking out the final two batters, and following a 36-0 win over Wausau
East, the team beat then-sixth-ranked Chippewa Falls
8-1 and then-fourth-ranked Kaukauna 4-3 at Woyak Park
The stretch was the start of a 12-game winning streak, which
also included a doubleheader sweep of eventual State Quarterfinalist Verona May
7 and a 5-1 win over Kaukauna in the semifinals of the Chippewa Falls
Invitational May 14, before the Panthers lost to second-ranked Union Grove 4-0 in
the Championship Game of the Chippewa Falls Invitational to bring their record
“We really did take our losses in stride and learn from
them,” said SPASH assistant coach Todd VanderLoop. “We built off our losses,
and said ‘what did we need to do better?’
“Some of the faster pitching, we needed to amp it up, and
focus on our hitting, because you’ve got to score,” he said. “That’s what we
wanted to come out here and do, just put runs on the board.”
SPASH closed the regular season with a 19-2 win at Merrill
May 17 and a 5-0 win over Everest May 19 to win their 19th consecutive WVC
Title dating back to 1998.
“A little bit before playoffs, we knew we had to step up and
play every single game like it was our last,” said Gaber. “Because nobody
wanted to go home, and we wanted this so bad.”
The Panthers entered the postseason as the third-ranked team
in Division 1 and opened with a 12-2 win over Wisconsin Rapids in the Regional
Final May 27, before they hosted 12th-ranked Everest in the Sectional
Semifinals May 31, where the game remained tied at 0-0 heading into the bottom
of the sixth inning.
Kawlewski led off with a double and was moved to third on a
groundout, while Everest elected to intentionally walk Kluck and Gaber to load
the bases with one out.
Pavelski came through with a RBI single to give SPASH a 1-0
lead, and Tuszka followed with a grand slam to close the books on a 5-0 win
that sent the team to the Sectional Finals and one win away from state.
“If we get down, somebody else steps up, and that’s the
beauty of it,” said VanderLoop. “And it’s not always the same person.
“We’re a team that does not need to rely on one, two or
three people, we can rely on 19 kids on this team, because everybody had a part,
and that’s really the difference,” he said. “Go to Tuszka’s home run against
D.C. Everest, they’re walking people, and a No. 7-hitter hits a grand slam. And
that could’ve happened with our No. 9-hitter.”
In the Sectional Final June 2, the Panthers scored six runs
in the bottom of the first inning against Hudson (19-8) to take a 6-0 lead and
went on to an 11-4 win to advance to the State Tournament for the 13th time in
17 years, where they scored five runs in the bottom of the first inning and two
more in the second to jump out to a 7-0 lead on the way to an 8-3 win over
Kenosha Tremper (17-11) in the State Quarterfinals.
SPASH then built a 4-0 lead in the top of the second inning
against fourth-ranked Pulaski in the State Semifinals and led 8-1 on its way to
a 10-3 win.
That sent the Panthers to the State Championship Game for
the 11th time in program history, where they rallied from a 3-1 deficit with
six runs in the top of the third inning to take a 7-3 lead and rolled to a 16-4
victory behind a 20-hit offensive performance to claim the 2016 WIAA Division 1
State Title and finish with a 29-3 record.
“We worked together all winter to push and push, and finally
we’re here,” said Miklesh. “And it’s all paid off.”
“I’m going to remember the team, the chemistry we had, and
all of the memories that we’ve had together,” said Gaber. “I’m also going to
remember all of the work that we’ve put in, because it’s not easy to do
something like this.
“We’ve worked so hard, and we’ve had so many long days,” she
said. “I’m just so happy for my team.”
Along the way, Gaber, Miklesh and Aubrey Drohner were each
Unanimous First Team All-WVC selections, Kluck and Kawlewski were First Team
All-WVC, Flugaur and Worzella were Second Team All-WVC and Pavelski was
Honorable Mention All-WVC to give the Panthers eight players on the
All-Conference Team, while coach Drohner was named the co-WVC Coach of the Year
and Aubrey Drohner was voted the WVC Player of the Year.
The Panthers averaged 9.9 runs and 11 hits per game this
season, as they outscored their opponents by a 317-81 margin and set a school
record with 31 home runs, on their way to winning the State Championship.
“It’s been a great group all year long, with 11 seniors, and
it’s just been a tight bond amongst them,” said VanderLoop. “It’s been an honor
to coach them and come out to practice every day. I’m going to miss them.
“It’s a special group, obviously with what they’ve
accomplished,” he said. “But it’s just the kind of kids they are that makes it
“It’s without question, the best-hitting team I’ve ever
had,” said coach Drohner, who guided SPASH to a State Title for the eighth time.
“The whole year was a grind, and we talked about, ‘we’re trying to get better
and play our best softball at the end.’
“We played probably the toughest schedule in the state,” he
said. “And because of that grind, we were able to accomplish all the goals and
dreams that these kids had.”