CLOQUET - With an abundance of family in attendance to watch her play softball earlier this week, South Ridge's Celia Olesiak offered up plenty of smiles.
None bigger however, then when the senior scored the Panthers' only run. Olesiak's lone tally off a Natalie Smith RBI-hit midway through the game was all South Ridge needed to upend Carlton 1-0 in a Section 7A softball game Tuesday, May 28, at Cloquet's Braun Park.
The win not only pushed the Panthers (17-5) into the championship game opposite Cherry (21-4) on Thursday, May 30, at Braun beginning at 4 p.m., but more shockingly, also ousted the two-time defending champion Bulldogs, who were later eliminated by the Tigers.
"I think everyone is usually scared to play Carlton, but we went in knowing that we could beat them," Olesiak said. "We're going (into the championship) with a lot of confidence."
As they should, riding the arms of Olesiak and fellow senior Malania Madill throughout the spring, mixed with a multitude of talented and experienced teammates. Madill went the distance Tuesday, tossing a five-hitter and striking out 10 Bulldogs.
Back in the final for the second straight season, the Panthers, led by coach Roger Plachta, are just one win shy of the small Culver-based school's first state softball appearance in program history.
"I would have never dreamt that in a million years. I just wanted to coach," Plachta, who was given his latest coaching position just three days before the season began this March, told the Duluth News Tribune afterward. "But they have the drive - they really do."
South Ridge and Cherry have split against one another this spring - the Tigers taking the teams' season opener 3-0, while the Panthers prevailed 1-0 in a playoff meeting last week.
Unscathed, South Ridge will have two chances to win once, while conquering the loser's bracket, Cherry will need to win twice to get to state.
"We want to get it done as quickly as we can," Olesiak said. "I've never been to a state tournament - I don't think any of us have. It's the last chance for some of us. That'd be so special."
Section 7A Playoffs
South Ridge 1, Carlton 0
WP: Malania Madill 7IP, 5H, 10K, 1BB, 1HBP. LP: Brynne Mickle 7IP, 1R, 7H, 2K, 2BB. SR: Natalie Smith
RBI; Mary Lisic 2H; Natalie Lisic 2B.