BIG LAKE - Willmar's dream softball season came to an end Friday afternoon as Rocori completed the comeback from the losers bracket to win a pair against the Cardinals and win the Section 5AAA title and a trip to the state tournament.
Rocori claimed the championship with a 5-0 win over Willmar in the second game after forcing a deciding game with a 14-6 win in Friday's first game.
The Spartans open Minnesota State Softball Tournament play on Thursday at Caswell Park in North Mankato.
The Cardinals struggled defensively in the first game, falling behind 8-0 in the first two innings after three costly errors and a misplayed ball in center field allowed Rocori to start strong.
Willmar played much better defensively in Game 2 but ran into Caitlin Heinen, who tossed a one-hit shutout to guide the Spartans to their first state tournament appearance since 2010.
"She did very well, she threw a lot of strikes," said Willmar head coach Shannon Cayler. "They're a good team. That's a team that has a lot of pitching depth and a whole lot of good hitters. That depth and lineup, one-through-nine, that gives them a lot of confidence."
Heinen was the star of a rapid Game 2 that took little more than an hour to play. She allowed a seeing-eye single to Jordyn Swoboda to open up the game but after a sacrifice bunt and back-to-back strikeouts the threat was over. Willmar managed one more baserunner the rest of the game by walk. Aside from that, Heinen was perfect with 10 strikeouts.
Similar to Game 1, Rocori jumped out to an early lead in the second game, scoring four runs in the bottom of the first inning. Willmar pitcher Mackenzie Jones came within inches of striking out the side but Rocori took advantage of the narrow margin, using a two-run single and a two-run double to take the 4-0 lead.
In addition to the errors in Game 1, Rocori hitters jumped on tough pitches from Jones and Swoboda, who entered game one in relief. Rachel Neugart finished the game with a pair of home runs. Her first was a three-run shot, followed by a two-run home run. The Spartans tallied 12 hits in the game compared to Willmar's seven.
"We didn't start well defensively, obviously," Cayler said. "It could have been nerves, sure. It was the first experience for most of these girls in a game like this. I think they got better and I think what we saw in Game 2 was much better."
Josie Muller finished game one with a three-run double to the wall but it proved to be too late as Rocori pitcher McKenzie Dufner, who showed flashes of excellence in her own right, ended the game with a strikeout, her eighth of the day.
Willmar misses out on the team's first state tournament appearance since 2006 but Cayler praised her team immediately after the game.
"No one would have voted for us to be in the section finals," Cayler said of a team that finished with four wins in 2017. "We had two returning starters, a rookie pitcher and our seniors didn't have a ton of experience. I'm extremely proud of these girls and what they were able to accomplish this season. We'll use this moving forward."
Rocori 5, Willmar 0
Willmar 000 000 0-0 1 2
Rocori 401 000 x-5 6 0
Hitting - Willmar: Jordyn Swoboda 1-3 ... Rocori: Amy Schlangen 1-3 rbi-2 r
Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) - Willmar: Mackenzie Jones (L) 6-6-5-4-3-8 ... Rocori: Caitlin Heinen (W) 7-1-0-0-1-10
Rocori 14, Willmar 6
Rocori 350 200 4-14 12 3
Willmar 020 010 3-6 7 4
Hitting - Rocori: Rachel Neugart 2-4 hr-2 rbi-5 r-2, Abby Anderson 3-5 rbi r-2 ... Willmar: Jordyn Swoboda 1-4, Makenna Hogan 1-2 r-2, Mackenzie Jones 2-3 r-2, Ashley Prahl 1-4 rbi r-2, Josie Muller 1-3 2b rbi-3, Natalie Amon 1-2 rbi
Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) - Rocori: McKenzie Dufner (W) 7-7-6-4-6-8 ... Willmar: Jones (L) 1.1-5-8-4-0-1, Swoboda 5.2-7-6-4-3-1