by DAVID ALBRECHT
The sun was shining and the temperature tipped 70 degrees at Maynard R. Johnson Field for the first time in the 2019 season. That alone could bring joy to the Winona community and the number-seven-ranked Winona State University (WSU) softball team.
However, it was the Warriors’ performance on the diamond that drew the most fanfare on Saturday afternoon.
In a pivotal weekend against two regionally ranked opponents, Winona State completed a four-game sweep of both Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State. The Warriors dispatched of the St. Cloud Huskies on Saturday by scores of 8-2 and 3-0.
The conclusion of the Warriors’ six-game home stand also marks the end of 10 total games in seven days with Winona State prevailing triumphantly.
While the formula of solid pitching and clutch hitting has held true for WSU throughout its program-record, 24-game winning streak, the Warriors continue to find ways to beat opponents in different manners. On Saturday, Winona State’s aggressive offensive approach took the lead. The Warriors’ ambushed the Huskies for five home runs – each coming on the first pitch of the batter’s respective at-bat.
Winona State (39-5, 24-0 NSIC) has launched 29 of its 34 long balls this season during conference play, which was the start of the Warriors’ winning streak on March 27. WSU’s four homers in game one of Saturday’s twin bill were the most since connecting on five versus Minnesota State University - Moorhead last month.
St. Cloud looked ready for the challenge of disrupting the Warriors’ 22-game streak entering the day by jumping on the home team with a run in the top of the first inning of game one. However, the Huskies’ lead was short-lived, as Lani Van Zyl and Alison Nowak drilled back-to-back two-out dingers to center field, and WSU never trailed again for the remainder of the gorgeous spring day.
The Warriors got some help, and a little luck, in the third frame to add three more runs to the scoreboard. A lineout off the bat of Alexis Kelsey resulted in a Huskie throwing error to chase home a run and Ann Smolenski followed with another bullet, this time corralling off the first baseman’s mitt, to drive in two more for a 5-1 lead.
St. Cloud made it a 5-2 ballgame in the top of the fourth before Jen Giesey blasted the first pitch of the bottom of the inning out of the park to left-center field. Kelsey capped the scoring with a two-run bomb to left field in the fifth.
All three runs of the finale came in the bottom of the first inning off the bat of Nowak. Kayla Kerman reached on a bunt single with one out, and Van Zyl followed with a double to bring the cleanup hitter to the plate. Nowak proceeded to hammer the first pitch she saw to the opposite field for her NSIC-leading 13th round-tripper.
In the circle, Jordyn Kleman (21-1) scattered five hits over her 54th complete career game in the opener while Liz Pautz (14-2) three-hit the Huskies for her fourth shutout of the year in game two. Kleman’s 21 wins rank in the top 10 in the country and Pautz’s 0.85 ERA sits inside the top five nationally.
Pautz walked the first batter she faced in each of the first three innings of the finale but preceded to strike out 12 batters as she retired 11 straight batters from the second through sixth innings. Pautz and Kleman were both taxed over the past week, combing to throw 62 of 67 innings for WSU over the past seven days.
The Warrior defense also shined in the sweep as Nowak caught a pair of base runners napping in the top of the seventh frame in game two to record the final two outs of the tilt. Van Zyl also flashed some leather in game one with a head’s up play after a diving stop to cut down a St. Cloud runner trying to advance to snuff out a rally by the Huskies.
The Warriors will get some much-needed rest over the next few days before traveling to Wayne State on Wednesday for their final road trip of the regular season. The midweek doubleheader is slated for a 1 p.m. start.