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College softball: St. Scholastica wins UMAC tourney and berth in NCAA

The Gatorade shower has been a sports tradition since the mid-1980s, where athletes dump a cooler of icy liquid over a coach or player's head following a big win.

Saints win UMAC tourney
St. Scholastica players Bonnie Kowalczyk and Darcy Roach celebrate after winning the UMAC tournament Saturday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The Gatorade shower has been a sports tradition since the mid-1980s, where athletes dump a cooler of icy liquid over a coach or player's head following a big win.

The gesture is meant as a fun shock treatment, but it occasionally backfires, as was the case on Saturday at Kenwood Field in Duluth.

St. Scholastica softball players Bonnie Kowalczyk and Darcy Roach erred in their delivery, and Roach got just as soaked as the intended target, Saints coach Jen Walter.

Roach was nearly perfect in everything else on Saturday, pitching a four-hit shutout to lead St. Scholastica to a 9-0 victory in five innings over Minnesota-

Morris in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference tournament championship game, securing the Saints' second straight NCAA Division III tournament berth and third overall.

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"The team we have right now is amazing," said Roach, a junior from East Grand Forks, Minn. "Everyone puts in what they can, and it all comes together great. We just need to keep playing like we did today."

Leadoff hitter Merryssa Tiedeman led St. Scholastica offensively by going 3-for-3 with a home run and a

career-high five RBIs as the Saints blitzed Morris with nine runs in the first three innings.

"In warm-ups I told myself I wasn't nervous, we play this game every day, but there were some nerves," said Tiedeman, one of three seniors on the team. "We just got fired up and ready to go from the first pitch. Our motto this year is focused fun, and that shows. I'm really excited. We've been to the NCAA tournament before, so we already know the routine of it, so I think we'll approach it this year like we've got nothing to lose."

This is the second year the UMAC had an automatic qualifier to the NCAA Division III playoffs at stake, giving a winner-take-all feel to the conference tournament. It was the Saints' fourth straight UMAC tournament title, but this one certainly wasn't easy, with Saturday's finale easily being the most lopsided game of the tournament.

"With us being the No. 1 seed, we had to be able to handle that pressure, and that's tough," Walter said. "It's a lot easier to go in there with the attitude, 'Hey, let's just play.' For us, we had to defend, we're supposed to win, and we're playing for a big prize. I told our players the other day in practice that this is like taking a final, where your entire grade revolves around the final. It didn't matter what we did before. It was what we did here."

And the Saints did a lot. Early.

Theresa Tauer and Bonnie Kowalczyk hit back-to-back doubles to lead St. Scholastica to four runs in the first inning, and then Tiedeman put the exclamation point on the second inning with a three-run homer to center field.

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That was more than Roach would need as she hunkered down anytime the Cougars got runners aboard and got great defense behind her, in particular from Tauer at third base.

Morris (19-19) would have needed two wins on Saturday to unseat the Saints (32-10) in the double-elimination tournament. St. Scholastica has now won 14 UMAC tournament titles to go with 16 regular-season titles, all since 1986, and went 13-0 at Kenwood Field this season.

"The pitcher I started threw really well against St. Scholastica last weekend, so I thought we'd give it a shot again, but they just jumped on her," said Cougars coach Heather Pennie. "I felt like we made the Saints earn it this weekend, but they just have the confidence and tradition that seems to help carry them through sometimes."

It's hard to imagine an overcast, 43-degree day with 10 mph winds being ideal for softball, but Saturday was certainly better than Friday, where biting winds off Lake Superior spurred Saints athletic director Don Olson to go home for more clothing.

"I only had four jackets on, and I needed five or six," Olson joked. "Compared to yesterday, this is balmy."

For Roach, who always goes sleeveless regardless of the conditions, Saturday was perfect, even after getting soaked. Nothing warms up the soul like a Saints' victory.

"Just a typical day in Duluth," Roach said, laughing.

THEY SAID IT

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Walter, the veteran coach, was sporting a cast on her hand after breaking a thumb on a foul ball hit by Saints' freshman Molly Jazdzewski two weeks ago at Minnesota-Morris.

"I'm too old to get out of the way," Walter said.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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