Stillwater Area High School has a long history. The oldest accredited high school in Minnesota, Stillwater is also a sports powerhouse with over 75 state championships across almost all competitive high school sports. And, in 2018, the girls’ teams really went for the gold with four state titles.
One of those big gold state trophies belongs to the girls’ softball team. There was a moment in their season, though, when they weren’t at all sure they’d bring the championship home. After getting off to a pretty solid start, the Ponies hit a losing stretch that threatened to derail their season altogether. They entered the post-season sectional tournament as underdogs. They lost the first game of that tournament to Cretin Durham-Hall, and were one game away from elimination, but then something amazing happened—they ran the board, advancing to the next round by beating the first, second and third seeded teams. Those were all teams they’d lost to twice in the regular season.
According to head coach Bob Beedle, it wasn’t just amazing, it was historic. “No team had ever lost their first game in the sectional tournament and then gone on to win it all,” Beedle says. “I told the team that they had a chance to do something memorable and historic.” In fact, the Ponies set a state record. They had 13 total losses—the most ever for a state championship team.
So how did they turn it around in the eleventh hour? Teamwork and trust. “They learned to trust each other and to believe that if they walked they had someone behind them to get a hit and get the job done. That let them all become better hitters,” Beedle says.
Aubrey Kelley, who will be returning as a team captain this season, says she thinks the turnaround for the team came from the now-or-never atmosphere of the tournament.
“I believe we were all just tired of losing, we realized this was our last chance to prove ourselves and it was the final opportunity to make a comeback,” Aubrey says. “After losing our first section game, the season was immediately put into perspective and I believe that our team, as a whole realized that we had to work together and put every ounce of energy we had left into sections and state.”
Torri Chute, who is also returning and will be a team captain this season, agrees with Aubrey that the team matured when they found their backs against the wall. Torri says she grew from the experience and that it taught her not to focus on the negative.
“I learned to never give up and stay positive,” Torri says. “Things are not always what they seem. Our team’s record looked pretty bad, BUT with a positive attitude and determination our team was able to turn things around and with every win we gained strength and confidence.”
Player Annalise Bell adds, “We spent our two-hour practices in a classroom talking about how we can change things around. This process brought us much closer as a team, we learned a lot about each other. We all wanted to win, we just couldn’t find our game we all knew we had within us.”
It wasn’t just the players and coaches who were in the trenches. As any parent of an athlete knows, moms and dads are living and breathing those tough losses, too. Dylan Bell’s daughter Annalise is a pitcher and he says she really felt a responsibility to lead.
“Watching my daughter, Ani work with the team of girls who overcame the mid-season slump and winning it all was an emotional roller coaster ride for all of us,” Bell says. Everyone thought at the beginning of the season that the Ponies had a really good shot at the state championship. “With high expectations and being ranked 6th in the state (at the beginning of the season) losing league games (in the middle of the season) quickly dragged the team down,” he says.
Bell says the coaches did a good job of keeping the girls motivated and not letting them get too discouraged. “If Ani had her head down, coaches would pump my daughter up to motivate the team,” he says.
Both Aubrey and Torri say that they have learned a lot of valuable life lessons from playing sports and being on a team and they both think that it is important for girls to play sports. It seems that Minnesotans agree. As of 2018 Minnesota leads the nation in the number of high school girls participating in organized team sports. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, girls make up 49% of all high school level athletes in the state. The number of girls playing sports has grown steadily and dramatically over the past decade and there have been increases in every sport the Federation tracks.
Coach Beedle says he’s watched the growth in girls’ participation. “More opportunities have opened up for girls and they are taking advantage of it,” he says. He believes that the exciting win for the girls’ softball team last season will translate to more involvement by younger girls…like the 10 and under programs. He looks forward to an increase in participation at the varsity level for years to come as those girls reach high school.
Of course, after such an amazing season last year, this year’s team has a lot to live up to and the pressure to repeat a championship is hard on even professional players. Both Aubrey and Torri seem confident that the Ponies can handle it, though.
“We have a lot of talent and a very young roster and I think physically we have a very strong, talented, competitive team,” Aubrey says. “However, the mental aspect can often outweigh the physical aspect of the game. We will need to remain humble after our successes of last season and focus on recreating those successes. I am very hopeful for our team and I cannot wait to watch the season play out.”
Torri says that she thinks the confidence the younger girls learned from last year’s seniors will carry over to this season. “By winning state last year our team has seen our potential and with hard work, determination, and focus to win, hopefully we will win our conference, sections and another state title!!! Go Ponies!!!”