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College softball: Senne, Vikings hold off Yellowjackets in UMAC tournament title game

Freshman gets out of late jam to win pitchers’ duel with Kraemer.

University of Wisconsin-Superior is the runner-up in the UMAC softball tournament after falling 1-0 to Bethany Lutheran
Elizabeth Cizek (27) of Bethany Lutheran tags out base runner Evelyn Thomton (4) of Wisconsin-Superior at home plate for the final out of the game during the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship on Saturday, May 7, 2022, at NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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SUPERIOR — After fouling off one pitch after another, former Hermantown High School standout Bryton Kukowski hit a double to give a Wisconsin-Superior offense that had been on life support a much-needed jolt with one out in the top of the seventh inning of the UMAC softball tournament title game.

Bethany Lutheran coach Dan Nessler came out to the mound and his message to his team was simple: stay calm.

The Vikings did just that, using a double play to get out of the jam and holding on for a 1-0 victory over the Yellowjackets Saturday, May 7, before 250 at NBC Spartan Sports Complex.

Freshman Kayla Senne (17-10) got the win, tossing a four-hitter with three strikeouts and one walk en route to being named tournament most valuable player.

“Coach came out and said, ‘She deserved that hit but now we know what we have to do to get the outs. We got this,’” Senne said. “They had a person on a base, so I was very very nervous, but I’ve been in that position before, so I knew I just had to get a ground ball to my defense or get the outs myself.”

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Kukowski was replaced on second base by the speedy Evelyn Thomton, who moved to third base on a wild pitch. UWS, the defending tournament champions, were now only 60 feet away from tying it when Jessica Jacobson hit a sharp grounder to third.

University of Wisconsin-Superior is the runner-up in the UMAC softball tournament after falling 1-0 to Bethany Lutheran
Bryton Kukowski (20) of Wisconsin-Superior hits the ball against Bethany Lutheran during the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship on Saturday, May 7, 2022, at NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Bethany Lutheran third baseman Alyssa Kosta gloved the ball, briefly checked Thomton back to the bag and threw to first to get Jacobson out. Thomton took off for home, but first baseman Zoe Kinakin fired a perfect strike to catcher Elizabeth Cizek, who applied the tag on Thomton. Game over.

“I was a little bit scared, especially those last three (outs), but at least we were the home team so we had the advantage (of last at-bats) to go get them if we needed to,” Senne said. “They needed a run desperately, so I figured that they were going to steal home. As soon as the throw got to (Cizek), I’m like, ‘Yes!’ I knew she was going to make the play.”

Top-seeded UWS (33-10) swept the three regular-season meetings from the Vikings but they weren’t pushovers: 4-1, 5-1 in eight innings and 4-1 again.

Third-seeded Bethany Lutheran (29-14) scored only one run for the fourth time but somehow managed to win this one. The Vikings’ lone run came in the third inning when Kinakin sliced a tailing double to the left-field corner to score Cizek and that was it.

University of Wisconsin-Superior is the runner-up in the UMAC softball tournament after falling 1-0 to Bethany Lutheran
Baserunner Evelyn Thomton (4) of Wisconsin-Superior slides into third against Alyssa Kosta (10) of Bethany Lutheran during the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship on Saturday, May 7, 2022, at NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

With the victory, Bethany Lutheran qualified for the NCAA Division III tournament for only the second time, with the other being in 2013.

Afterward, Nessler got the Gatorade dump, which fortunately, was only water on a sunny 44-degree day with a 10 mph wind blowing in off the lake.

“We had some really good battles with Superior all season,” Nessler said. “Today our defense, and Kayla Senne, were really good. Kayla Senne was electric. For a freshman, she was dynamite. She was the difference, and we found a way to scratch out a run.”

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Kukowski, the reigning UMAC player of the week, was the only player for either team with multiple hits with two.

Senne’s counterpart, UWS sophomore Tayler Kraemer (20-7), was nearly as good, allowing only one run on three hits in six innings, with three strikeouts and no walks.

University of Wisconsin-Superior is the runner-up in the UMAC softball tournament after falling 1-0 to Bethany Lutheran
Jessica Jacobson (14) of Wisconsin-Superior hits the ball during the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship on Saturday, May 7, 2022, at NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I’m insanely proud of how Tayler pitched today,” second-year UWS coach Melissa Fracker said. “She pitched really well and our defense played really well. They just got that hit in that situation and that was it.

“Tayler is a fighter, and I know that right now, it doesn’t feel good. She wants it just as much for the team as anything else. She just loves softball and just loves to compete.”

Kraemer helped lead the Yellowjackets to their first regular-season softball title this spring. Both teams Saturday are expecting to return nearly their entire squads next season, with Bethany Lutheran only graduating three and UWS only losing two.

So the future for Yellowjackets softball is incredibly bright, though on Saturday, it was hard to look too far ahead.

“Only one team in the nation comes out with a win at the end, so every other team comes to this point, and it’s never fun,” Fracker said. “Our hope is after the sting wears off a little bit we can reflect on what an amazing season we had. It’ll take some time, it always does, but it still doesn’t change what type of season that we had.”

  • One of Nessler’s assistant coaches is Randy Hill of Duluth. Hill previously coached at UWS and played for the 1988 national champion Stewart-Taylor team out of Duluth.
University of Wisconsin-Superior is the runner-up in the UMAC softball tournament after falling 1-0 to Bethany Lutheran
Bryton Kukowski (20) of Wisconsin-Superior beats the ball to second base against Ana Christofferson (4) of Bethany Lutheran during the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship on Saturday, May 7, 2022, at NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
University of Wisconsin-Superior is the runner-up in the UMAC softball tournament after falling 1-0 to Bethany Lutheran
Bethany Lutheran players celebrate after defeating Wisconsin-Superior during the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship on Saturday, May 7, 2022, at NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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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