Behind the scenes of Northome/Kelliher's monumental section triumph

Jun. 4—WALKER — Kylee Binkley had to keep her cool in the biggest moment of her softball career.

She stepped into the pitcher's circle with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, protecting a 3-2 lead in the Section 5A championship against Sebeka.

"We got the first two outs pretty easily," Binkley said. "When it came time to get the last out, I think we all kind of realized that we're actually doing this."

Binkley induced a softly-hit ground ball that went right back to her. As she threw the ball to first base, head coach Pennie Rude immediately went on defense.

"All of the girls were on this big adrenaline high," Rude said. "They were all buzzing. You could just see them jittering on the field. I'm standing in the dugout screaming, 'Calm down. Just make the out.' I had to hold back the players from running on the field because when we beat Hill City, they ran on the field before the ump called the game over."

Rude's efforts to keep her team's excitement under control were fruitless. The Mustangs stormed the field immediately after the game went final. Not only is it Northome/Kelliher's first section softball title, but it's also the first time an N/K girls program has clinched a team state berth.

"I can't describe the feeling very well," Binkley said. "It's just ... amazing. That's all I can say. All the work we put into it, the sacrifices we had to put in to make it to state, it was just all worth it and a great feeling."

The Mustangs took the scenic route to get there.

After beating Nevis 6-1 in the first round and Bertha-Hewitt/Verndale 5-4 in the second, Northome/Kelliher lost to Sebeka 5-2, knocking itself to the elimination bracket. The Mustangs picked up a come-from-behind win to beat Hill City/Northland 6-5, setting up a rematch with Sebeka in the title game.

Having already lost once in the double-elimination tournament, Northome/Kelliher had to beat Sebeka twice to get to state.

"It was just about taking it one game at a time," senior Waabi Wagner said. "The first game, we had to realize we could do it. We had to have the right mindset. We can do this, we just have to keep with it. ... Our confidence was super high after winning the first game. Knowing that you can come back after losing to (Sebeka), it's hard not to have confidence in everybody."

A 3-1 win in the first of two championship games set the stage for a winner-take-all finale, a contest that ended with the Mustangs' ultimate triumph.

"Obviously, we thought we could win twice, but you have some doubts," Binkley said. "They had the advantage, so we just had to put in more work than they did. So when it came down to getting the last out, I was just trying to throw it nice and easy — throw strikes. When we got that out, it's the greatest feeling."

In all three elimination games, Northome/Kelliher had to stage a comeback in the final two innings. Rude cites her team's resiliency as a product of their competitiveness in all sports.

"A lot of these girls play three sports," Rude said. "When you play three sports, you kind of develop that mentality. When you have coaches that are coaching that mentality, it sticks. It doesn't just come from me. It comes from their basketball coaches, their volleyball coaches. We don't give up here."

The Mustangs drew the No. 1 seed in the Class A tournament at Casswell Park in Mankato. They enter with a record of 19-3 and will take on New Ulm Cathedral at 5:30 p.m. in the quarterfinal round.

Despite being paired with a tough opponent, Northome/Kelliher players are eager to play for something no Mustangs girls program has ever played for.

"The excitement comes with being on a new field," Wagner said. "It's just going to be so different from around here when we run out on that field. I'm excited for all of the team bonding we can do. ... The dedication and the trust we have in each other, that's the biggest thing for us. We all trust each other. You have to be able to trust yourself and the people around you to do something like this."

Regardless of the outcome at state, Rude is overwhelmed with the love she has for her team.

"I'm proud of these girls every single day," Rude said. "I've told them all season that we could do something really cool. I don't think they really believed me, but I tell them all the time how proud of them I am, win or lose. This was a defining moment for them. It was amazing, absolutely amazing, that they pulled it off and persevered through it."