By BURT ANGELI
IRON MOUNTAIN -Valerie Hohol and New Life Academy matched a Minnesota softball record for state tournament appearances this season.
Valerie Hohol, pictured with her parents Mark and Renee (Outcelt) Hohol of Niagara, led Woodbury New Life Academy to Minnesota's Class A state softball finals.
The Eagles (18-4), a private school from Woodbury, bowed to Blooming Prairie 3-1 in the Class A finals. They can't wait for 2014 and a record ninth state trip to Mankato.
"It's hard, I must admit, and a little difficult because we were so close," said Hohol, daughter of Niagara High School graduates Renee (Outcelt) and Mark Hohol. "We did so well the whole year and really exceeded all of our expectations.
"I couldn't be more proud of what these girls have done. Being a part of this group makes me so motivated to get right back at it."
New Life, bidding for a fifth state championship in the past six years, managed four hits in the final. Hohol, hitting in the three-spot, led off New Life's run-scoring fourth with the first of her two hits.
But Blooming Prairie answered with three runs in the bottom half of the fifth inning.
"We're on track," said coach Mick Ramey, who guided New Life to four straight state titles from 2007 to 2011. "Our goal was to get back here this year and win those first couple of games. This game was icing on the cake. Sure, we wanted to win, but we're OK with second."
Hohol, a sophomore who was named to the Class A all-tourney team, fanned nine and walked one in the championship. Blooming Prairie totaled nine hits.
"(Blooming Prairie) came out with some extra motivation," Hohol said of the 2012 state runner-up. "You could tell. I completely congratulate them."
Hohol, a regular since the seventh grade, entered the state tournament with a 16-3 record. She struck out 128 in 110 innings, and compiled a 0.88 earned run average.
She was just as special at the plate with a .554 batting average.
"We've come so far,'' Hohol said. "Our team batting percentage is more than 150 points better than last year. That's amazing. To get this far is really incredible. There are so many schools in Class A. To finish as one of the top two is pretty special."
The small school softball powerhouse finished fourth in the state last season. Hohol did her part, winning 15 games and hitting .446 with a team-high 19 RBI.
"Last year was really intimidating," said Hohol, who was thrust into the lead pitcher role after watching past mound standouts from first base. "Those were kind of big shoes to fill.
"I've gotten a lot more comfortable with it. It's just normal now. I can just settle in and not worry about what I have to live up to."
The 2012 state experience was unexpected, with a 500 record the goal.
"Once we started getting into a groove, we were like, ' Wait, we can actually do this," said Hohol, a team co-captain.
New Life's state appearance number is also matched by eight straight Minnesota Christian Athletic Association titles.
New Life's 2014 prospects look very good with just two senior regulars on this year's team.
"Each year, the bar gets raised higher for the NLA softball program, but over the years, we've built a really strong program and have systems in place to build the program up to a level where we can advance to state and hopefully, win another state tournament," said Ramey, New Life coach for six seasons. "I've been successful because I'm surrounded by great people, parents and captains, and that makes delegating the work load a whole lot easier."
Valerie Hohol's grandparents are George and Louise Hohol and Ray and Lois Outcelt of Niagara.
(South Washington County Bulletin, Woodbury Bulletin, St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune contributed to this story)