MARSHALL — Litchfield’s best hopes for a section softball title were on the brink.

St. James had runners on second and third base with no outs in the bottom of the seventh. The Dragons huddled up with their coach to devise a plan and settle things down.

“I told them stuff they’ve heard a dozen times: Outfield in, infield in, it’s do-or-die right now,” said Dragons head coach Luke Braaten.

Said pitcher Taylor Draeger, “He just said we’re going to go home with it and I need to do my part and I got this. Throw strikes and let my defense make plays.”

A timely defensive play ended the Saints’ threat. Then in extra innings, an RBI single by Emma DeWolf put the Dragons into the Section 3AA championship game with a 2-1 victory at the Schwans Regional Amateur Sports Complex.

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“It was just fun to see them execute,” said Braaten, whose team is in the section finals for the first time in his eight seasons as coach.

Litchfield's Taylor Draeger sets to fire off a pitch during a Section 3AA playoff game against St. James on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 at the Schwans Regional Amateur Sports Complex in Marshall. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Litchfield's Taylor Draeger sets to fire off a pitch during a Section 3AA playoff game against St. James on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 at the Schwans Regional Amateur Sports Complex in Marshall. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

The Dragons look to make state for the first time since 1995 when they face Pipestone for the 3AA championship Thursday back in Marshall. The Arrows beat St. James 9-3 on Tuesday night in an elimination game.

With Tuesday’s victory, Litchfield has to win one game while Pipestone would have to win twice to advance to state and win 3AA for the fifth straight season.

“We’re all excited. That was the goal: the section final first, then the state tournament,” Luke Braaten said. “Seeing the girls work so hard and to see it unfold and get better and better, it’s fun to watch as a coach.”

In the seventh-inning jam, Draeger struck out Samantha Tetzloff for the first out. The Dragons hurler had seven strikeouts, allowing one run on an RBI single by Tori Mohlwinkel in the fourth inning.

“We knew they were going to be tough,” Draeger said. “They just beat Pipestone (on Saturday), which has been the leader of our section for some time now. We knew we had to bring our ‘A’ game and I tried to keep them off-balance and throw my best stuff.”

With the defense pulled in, the Saints’ Mackenzie Christensen hit a blooper to left field. Thinking it would fall to the ground, the runner on third was sent home. But, left fielder Liv Holmgren caught the pop up, then made the throw to third for the inning-ending double play.

Litchfield's Grace Braaten greets teammate Izzy Pennertz after scoring a run in the first inning of a Section 3AA playoff game against St. James on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 at the Schwans Regional Amateur Sports Complex in Marshall. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Litchfield's Grace Braaten greets teammate Izzy Pennertz after scoring a run in the first inning of a Section 3AA playoff game against St. James on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 at the Schwans Regional Amateur Sports Complex in Marshall. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

“I don’t think they realized that we pulled in the outfield so close,” Luke Braaten said.

Said Draeger after surviving the seventh, “I don’t think I celebrated that much. It was a huge weight off my shoulders. … You just have to trust your defense at that point. I have a great defense behind me and they make big plays. That’s what they did with that double play.”

Now, the Dragons’ offense had to get going in the eighth, which was a tough task. St. James sophomore pitcher Addie Bowers had 14 strikeouts Tuesday.

“She throws hard,” Luke Braaten said. “We put some runners on base and had our chances but she did a nice job keeping us off-balance, especially in scoring position.”

The one Litchfield player who had Bowers figured out was DeWolf. She opened the scoring in the first with a two-out RBI single that brought home Grace Braaten. Then after Sydney McCann opened the top of the inning with a walk, DeWolf blasted the ball off the fence in left field, allowing McCann to score from first for the game-winning run.

“Emma’s just been a great hitter all season long,” Luke Braaten said. “Her approach is see ball, hit ball, and she does a nice job with that.”

Draeger and the Litchfield defense closed the door in the bottom half of the eighth, putting the Saints down in order.

First pitch for Thursday’s section final is scheduled for 5 p.m.

Litchfield right fielder Ryanna Steinhaus catches a fly ball for an out during a Section 3AA playoff game against St. James on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 at the Schwans Regional Amateur Sports Complex in Marshall. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Litchfield right fielder Ryanna Steinhaus catches a fly ball for an out during a Section 3AA playoff game against St. James on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 at the Schwans Regional Amateur Sports Complex in Marshall. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Section 3AA

Litchfield 2,

St. James 1

Litchfield 100 000 01-2 6 0
St. James 000 100 00-1 6 1
Hitting - Litchfield: Avery Stilwell 2-4 2b, Emma DeWolf 3-4 2b rbi-2, Izzy Pennertz 1-4, Sydney McCann 0-3 r bb, Grace Braaten r … St. James: Chloe Michelson 1-4, Taylor Sodeman 1-3, Kelsey Grunewald 2-3 r, Tori Mohlwinkel 2-3 2b rbi.

Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so) - Litchfield: Taylor Draeger (W) 8-6-1-1-0-7 … St. James: Addie Bowers 8-6-2-2-1-14.