CLOQUET - Throughout the regular season, South Ridge seniors Malania Madill and Celia Olesiak alternated turns in the pitcher's circle. But as the Section 7A softball playoffs beckoned, Panthers coach Roger Plachta knew he had to pick a No. 1. With Olesiak's defense at third base all but irreplaceable, he went with Madill.

All she's done is put up zeros. Thirty-three of 'em, to be exact. Madill turned in her fifth consecutive shutout of the postseason Thursday at Braun Park, blanking Cherry 1-0 in the finals to send South Ridge (18-5) to state for the first time in program history.

Madill was asked to explain how she strung together a 33-inning scoreless streak.

"I don't even know - speechless," she said. "Very thankful for my team having my back."

How clutch was the right-handed Madill? The Panthers' past three games - vs. Cherry, Carlton, then Cherry again - all were 1-0 victories. That's 21 innings of needing to be near-perfect.

Madill was up to the challenge. She scattered four hits and struck out four Thursday, two days after fanning 10 in a complete-game five-hitter over two-time defending section champ Carlton.

Her teammates made her sweat out this win. As did Cherry freshman Lauren Staples, who recorded 12 punchouts and allowed just three hits, two of which came in the bottom of the seventh inning. Natalie Smith's one-out single put the Panthers in business, and she advanced to second base on Alexis Bergum's sacrifice bunt.

With two outs, Alana Young strode to the plate immersed in a bit of a slump. In fact, the sophomore said, "I couldn't hit anything." But she pulled a sharp single to left field, more than enough to plate Smith.

Despite the recent offensive funk, Young was brimming with confidence. She knew it "was time to hit."

"I was waiting for that moment to come," she said. "When I rounded first, I saw (Smith) head home and I just jumped and ran straight to her.

"I knew she was in."

South Ridge's immediate reaction when Smith crossed was one of confusion more than pandemonium. Staples had been so dominant for the Tigers (21-5) that Young's base knock surprised just about everyone. Players looked around the diamond, then at each other, before bursting toward home plate to mob Smith.

"I didn't think we could hit their pitching," Plachta said. "(Staples) threw a heck of a game, and we didn't hit anything until that seventh inning.

"Whoever had the big hit was going to win, and that's what happened."

The last year has been a whirlwind for Plachta. In November, the 63-year-old was fired as Wisconsin-Superior's coach. Plachta thought maybe that was it, that his time in dugouts had come to an end. But then South Ridge athletic director Tony DeLeon unexpectedly needed to find a replacement for coach Liz Beseke, who stepped down on the eve of the season.

Three days before the start of practice, DeLeon was thinking he might have to do it himself. In a Kwik Trip parking lot, a mutual friend dropped Plachta's name. That was at about 7:30 a.m. on a Friday. Five hours later, DeLeon had interviewed and hired his new skipper, and Plachta - who led Esko to a state championship before moving on to the college ranks in 2000 - was back in business.

Plachta says he felt some pressure to at least give the Panthers a chance to reach the state tournament.

"I thought maybe we had a chance, but after a few games I thought, 'No way can we do this. There's just not enough time. There's so much they have to learn.' "

But South Ridge came around and is now headed for Caswell Park in North Mankato. The Panthers will play a Class A quarterfinal vs. a to-be-determined opponent at 1 p.m. on June 6.

SECTION 7A FINAL

South Ridge 1, Cherry 0

At Braun Park. WP: Malania Madill 7IP, 4H, 4K, 3BB. LP: Lauren Staples 7IP, 1R, 3H, 12K. SR: Alana Young RBI single.