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Crusaders advance to first state tournament

Crusaders advance to first state tournament

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During a team meal on Thursday evening, Grand Island Central Catholic head softball coach Brock Culler asked his team to close their eyes and envision what it would feel like to watch the final strikeout take place to clinch a district championship.

On Friday, the Crusaders got to experience it.

Andrea Palma’s final strikeout clinched a best-of-3 series sweep by the Class B sixth-seeded Crusaders over 11th-seeded and defending state champion Wayne at the Vet’s Complex.

To accomplish that, GICC completed an improbable comeback in the first game by rallying for five runs in the bottom of the seventh to win 7-6. The Crusaders carried that momentum into the second game and cruised to a 15-2 victory in five innings.

It’s the first state tournament appearance in the 10-year history of the program, which is currently a co-op between GICC, Heartland Lutheran, Doniphan-Trumbull and Wood River.

“Everybody involved in this program had a piece of this over the years, and we’re finally getting to go to experience the show in Hastings,” said Culler, who has been head coach for the past eight years. “We’re so excited about it. As much as we’re looking forward to going, we’re looking to compete again. I’m just so dang proud of our group.”

GICC had no momentum going into the bottom of the seventh of the opener trailing 6-2.

That quickly changed. With one out, Alyssa Breckner hit an RBI triple.

Things got serious with two outs. Alexis Mudloff hit a pair of runs in with a double to close the gap to 6-5, and she tied the game on Palma’s single.

Kiernan Paulk then stepped up and doubled home the winning run.

“We do that a lot,” said Palma, who won the first game with an inning of relief. “We get down by a lot and then we’ll come back. I think we just really wanted to win really bad.”

Mudloff agreed: “I kind of figured we’d come back because that’s kind of what we’re known for. We did it against Northwest (in subdistricts) and just didn’t come out with the win. We did it this time, and that’s all that matters.”

Culler also pointed to the 16-15 10-inning loss to Northwest earlier in the week where the Crusaders fought back from a large deficit as a key to winning this game.

“I think the momentum came off that Northwest game on Tuesday where we were able to come back and kept fighting and clawing,” he said. “We’ve done that before. It’s helped that we’ve been in that situation.

“This team has guts and grit, and they’re not going to lay down. We have an inning or two that aren’t very good, but then we’ll have an inning or two that are just awesome.”

GICC (23-9) carried all the momentum into the second game and scored two runs in the top of the first and then exploded for six more in the second.

“I think it built up our confidence, and we believed in ourself more,” said Palma, who pitched a five-hitter and went 3-for-4 with four RBIs. “We just came into this (second) game thinking we’re just going to blow it out.”

The Crusaders tacked on plenty of insurance runs by plating seven more in the top of the fifth, including two on a home run from Boston Boucher.

They were more than happy to make some program history.

“It feels pretty overwhelming,” Mudloff said. “We’ve been working for it all season, so it feels pretty great.”

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