Panthers are MBC Champions! Come-from-behind win secures championship

By Joe Peine
Posted 5/15/24

The Ellsworth Panthers defeated the Prescott Cardinals in back-to-back games last week for a come from behind victory that clinched their first Middle Border Conference Championship in five years.

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Panthers are MBC Champions! Come-from-behind win secures championship


The Ellsworth Panthers defeated the Prescott Cardinals in back-to-back games last week for a come from behind victory that clinched their first Middle Border Conference Championship in five years.

Entering the week, three Middle Border teams had a shot at the title, and each had a pair of games left.

The 9-3 Somerset Spartans’ series came against fourth place Baldwin-Woodville, knowing they needed to win both to have a shot at the championship. Meanwhile, the first place 10-2 Prescott Cardinals were in complete control of their destiny, needing just a single win to lock up another conference crown. As for Ellsworth, the Panthers came in with a playoff mindset, knowing that any loss, any mistake could be the end of the road.

Then the dominoes started falling.

First, the Spartans game. Somerset came out hot, putting up two in the first and one in the second to take a 3-0 lead that would carry into the final six outs of the game for Baldwin. The Blackhawks rallied late, putting up one in the sixth and three in the bottom of the seventh to walk it off against the Spartans, eliminating them from conference championship contention.

Then came the highly anticipated, sudden death rivalry game between Prescott and Ellsworth, and wouldn’t you know it, starting pitchers Cardinal Ella Stewart and Panther Aliza Acker put on an absolute clinic in an old-fashioned pitchers’ dual. Both pitched complete games, and neither one gave up a single earned run, as the winner was determined by the defense behind them rather than the bats at the plate.

After a scoreless first inning where the only baserunner for either team came on a Cardinal error, a second, more costly error in the top of the second inning put the Panthers on the board.

Morgan Kolodzienski drew a leadoff walk, and two batters later Molly Janke got on base with a one-out single. Aubrey Wittenburg then reached on an error that allowed Kolodzienski to score all the way from second base. Stewart quickly worked out of the jam, retiring the next two batters on just seven pitches, but the damage was done as Ellsworth took the early 1-0 lead.

From there, the two starters were virtually unhittable, combining to retire 18 straight batters, but it was the Panthers’ defense that blinked first this time.

An error to start the bottom of the fifth put Megan Richter on first base free of charge. Acker retired the next two batters on just five pitches, but Stewart picked her team up at the plate, helping her own cause by taking a 3-1 pitch to right field, scoring Richter. That’s all they would get though as Acker retired the final batter on a three-pitch strikeout.

The 1-1 tie would hold until the final inning.

With two outs, Molly Janke got behind in the count. She took a ball to start the at bat, but a called strike and three straight fouls ensued as she protected the plate. In the end, she worked the count full and forced Stewart to give her a pitch to hit, which she did with a line drive to left field.

Then Stewart got behind 3-1 on Wittenburg before she too hit a liner, this time to right. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, a fielding error allowed Janke to score all the way from first base giving Ellsworth a 2-1 lead as Prescott was down to their final three outs.

After running the count 3-0 on the first Cardinals at the plate, Acker shut them down with authority, inducing the groundout and getting back-to-back K’s giving the Panthers the win and setting them up for a home game, Thunderdome-esque type of matchup in Ellsworth with two first place, 10-3 teams entering and one victor emerging.

Whereas game one was decided by the fielders, game two was resoundingly decided by the bats, more specifically by the longball.

After three shutout innings where each pitcher faced just one batter over the bare minimum, the fourth was the pivotal frame. Prescott had the top as the away team, and Leah French opened the inning by taking Acker’s first offering over the centerfield fence to make it 1-0. Richter would also single, but the Cardinals would take the one run lead into the bottom.

Stewart got the first out off one pitch, but Johnson took a 1-1 pitch deep to tie the game. Stewart struck the next batter out, but Aaliyah Huppert and Kolodzienski went back-to-back with two-out dingers to make it 3-1, a score that lasted until the final out when the Ellsworth Panthers won the Middle Border Conference Championship for the first time since 2019.

Acker was the winning pitcher, throwing seven innings of one-run ball, allowing seven hits and three walks while striking out five.

Stewart took the tough luck loss in this one, with the only three hits the Panthers managed off her leaving the park. She walked one and struck out 10 over six innings.

Head Coach Tom Diercks says the team adjusted well and the pitching was excellent.

“This team just battles. They got the pitching, and they got the talent. They can be just as good as anybody, they just have to put things together,” Diercks said. “The bats were a little bit slow tonight except for the one inning when we got the three dingers, but we got the important hits.”

Coach Diercks says the key for this team in the postseason is going to be the strength of their pitching staff led by Acker and then just the ability to play relaxed and confident.

“They basically just have to deal with the pressure. The last two games were great because it was basically playoffs. It was a playoff atmosphere. Big crowds, tight games,” Dierks said. “They really had to step up and make the plays where they needed to, so these were good games to get us going for the playoffs.”

Kolodzienski was understandably ecstatic after she hit the third Panther homerun on the game, but she says they need to stay focused and keep doing what they have been as they enter the postseason.

“It was a full count, and I wanted to be picky so something bad didn’t happen. I usually pull it, but I hit it to center, which is good for me. I was smiling all the way around the bases,” Kolodzienski said. “We have to keep going forward with the same mindset we've had of keeping the intensity up like we have been all year, keep playing hard no matter what and staying positive.”

Cardinals Head Coach Nick Johnson says they did all they could do with excellent pitching and putting double digit base runners on; they just couldn’t get that big hit when they needed it.

“Ella keeps us in every game. She's been that great. It's just phenomenal. We’ve just got to find a way to get big hits and keep putting pressure on the defense by putting the ball in play. We did that today, but we just couldn’t manufacture runs,” Johnson said. “We put 10 runners on base, but eventually, players have to come through. I mean, that's the bottom line that's in any sport, they’ve got to come through sometimes. Like I said, we had opportunities, but Ellsworth’s a good team, they’ve got a very good pitcher and a good lineup, and we just have to move forward.”

Although Stewart is in just her first year as the varsity starter, she says she thrives on the pressure of big games. Pitching in the championship is something she looked forward to as she does the postseason, and even though it was a loss, she has no doubts about the Cardinals’ ability to compete in the postseason.

“I love the pressure. I feel like I do a lot better under pressure, mostly. I knew this was going to be a big game coming in, and I know that they're big hitters here, so I was expecting some pretty big hits. And the fence is a lot shorter than we normally have, so I guess it is what it is,” Stewart said. “I'm going strong. We're going into playoffs with a good mindset. I feel pretty confident about this team and how we can play together, and string together hits and things like that. I'm confident for the postseason, and I'm excited for it.”

The postseason begins for both teams next week on Tuesday, May 21.

For the reigning Middle Border Champion Panthers, they earned the #2 seed in Division 2 and will host the first round of regional play when the winner of Altoona and Ashland comes to Ellsworth on Tuesday. If they win, play will continue on Thursday when they would take on the winner of Somerset and St. Croix Central. First pitch for both games is at 5 p.m.

Prescott’s strong regular season play earned them the #1 seed, but in Division 3. Their first game will come at home on Tuesday when they host the winner of Neillsville/Granton and Nekoosa, and if they win, play would continue on Thursday against the winner of Elk Mound and Arcadia. Both games begin at 5 p.m.

Ellsworth Panthers, Prescott Cardinals, MBC Championship, showdown, postseason, Middle Border, girls' softball