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An incredible era at Cathedral

Submitted photos Members of the 1994 New Ulm Cathedral softball team race out to the pitcher’s circle to celebrate their second consecutive state championship at Caswell Park in North Mankato. In front leading the way is Beth Portner, followed by Anne Grausam. Alesia Kiecker (back, far left), Jessica Schneider (back, middle) and Sarah Kuehn (back, right) were also in on the celebration.

NEW ULM — Looking back 27 years later, former New Ulm Cathedral softball coach Bob Mertz still remembers in great detail his greatest three-year stretch as a head coach, which began in the spring of 1993.

That year, Mertz and the Greyhounds won their first-ever state championship in dominating fashion, finishing the season 28-1. They went on to win three straight state titles, a run that put the program on the softball map and made Mertz one of the most successful softball coaches in the state of Minnesota.

During that three-year stretch, the Greyhounds went a combined 85-3. Led by future Minnesota Gopher Steph Klaviter at the pitcher position, the Greyhounds were pretty much guaranteed a win when Klaviter pitched. Klaviter went 23-1 in 1993 (.38 ERA, 233 strikeouts), 26-1 in 1994 (.22 ERA, 273 strikeouts) and 25-1 in 1995 (.17 ERA, 309 strikeouts). She allowed only four earned runs in that 95 season after the pitching rubber was moved back three feet, which allowed her to make better use of her drop ball.

They had five All-Conference players in all three years and their All-State players included Jennie Mertz (93), Rachel Stadick (93), Klaviter (94, 95), Denise Kuehn (94) and Sarah Kuehn (95).

93 team

Submitted photos New Ulm Cathedral pitcher Steph Klaviter (15) is mobbed by Alesia Kiecker and fellow Cathedral teammates during the 1995 state tournament at Caswell Park. It was the third straight state championship for the Greyhounds.

Cathedral had knocked on the door in 1992, losing in the section finals. That was enough to make everyone want that state tournament trip even more.

“The year before, I remember losing to Maple River in the finals the year before and I think that just resonated with a lot of us,” Dietz said. “I remember losing to Le Sueur the next year [in Game 1 of the section finals], losing that first game and I remember Mertz saying that someone needs to burn that right fielder because she was playing so far in. Right off the bat, Denise Kuehn hit a triple and right then and there, I knew that we could do this.”

The Greyhounds made it to the state tournament for the second time in program history, the first time coming in 1989. This time around, they had a dominant pitcher in Klaviter, who was just a sophomore, and an aggressive offense that featured the likes of Jennie Mertz, Denise Kuehn (now Kamm), Stef Whittet (now Dietz), Rachel Stadick, Erin Embacher and Sarah Weier. The Greyhounds went 28-1, the only loss coming to Le Sueur-Henderson in the section playoffs. Cathedral defeated LSH 5-0 to get to the section championship, and LSH advanced to the section championship and handed Cathedral a 3-1 loss in the first game. Cathedral came back and crushed the Giants 12-0 to advance to the state tournament, which was held in Fridley.

In that state tournament, the Greyhounds were dominant. They knocked off Wadena-Deer Creek 11-2 in the opener and Jackson 8-0 to advance to the championship, where they met Class A power St. Bernards.

There, the Greyhounds cruised to an 8-0 victory behind Klaviter and the celebration was on.

“Beating St. Bernards, they had beat us in 1989 when we were up there so it was kind of a little bit of revenge for us,” Mertz said. “I think we beat them 8-0 and that was a big win for our program.”

That 93-95 run made a name out coach Mertz and Klaviter as well as the Cathedral softball program. Prior to that, the program had been successful but made only one state tournament appearance in 1989. Longtime former Athletic Director John Vetter, who was the A.D. from 1987-2012, watched his school win nine state championships in that stretch in football (2011), softball (1993, 1994, 1995, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014) and baseball (2005). While they all have a special meaning for him, that first one in softball was special because it was the first one at Cathedral since 1964 when the baseball team won a state championship.

“I have memories, we played St. Bernard’s in the championship game, we got ourselves a 5-0 lead and I’m thinking with Steph Klaviter pitching, we’re in pretty good shape here,” Vetter said. “And as the game kept going, it became more and more apparent that we were going to win, and I remember turning to my wife and saying ‘we’re actually going to win, aren’t we’, and she said ‘yes, we are.'”

The 1993 season was one where Klaviter realized her potential. Prior to that, she was a hard thrower but she was wild, too.

“To be honest, I go back and look at a scrapbook with some articles my mom gave me, and I would see that I would walk so many batters [in that freshman year],” Klaviter said. “I remember Mertz saying to me that we gotta throw strikes and we gotta get rid of those things and I think it just gave me a couple years to mature. We had a really good team around me, I think the whole program had so much experience. That senior class, that first year that we won, they’re studs. The team itself was really good.”

Mertz remembered hearing about her as a younger player so he had to check it out himself. He was impressed with her confidence in the pitcher’s circle.

“Growing up, I’d watch her at New Ulm Public and she really always could throw hard,” Mertz said. “What really amazed me about her was that she was always so focused, so poised. She didn’t get rattled. Nothing really bothered her and that was one of the keys to her success.”

Denise (Kuehn) Kamm was the starting shortstop at Cathedral during the 93 and 94 season. The three-year varsity player remembers being part of a close-knit group that had plenty of talent up and down the lineup.

“I remember we had a really strong team and actually went through the [regular] season undefeated,” Kamm said. “We ended up losing to Le Sueur for our first loss and had to come back and beat them in order to go to the state tournament, and then we came back and had a great game and won pretty handedly. That really solidified how strong of a team we are and it renewed our belief in ourselves. Just going to the state tournament, we were very confident in our abilities, confident in each other and really excited to play at that level.”

The Greyhounds hit .325 as a team that year with a combined nine home runs. Klaviter went 23-1 with a .38 ERA and 233 strikeouts in 149 innings pitched.

“Honestly our whole lineup was capable of hitting,” Kamm said. “I think the big thing was we just were able to manufacture runs. Even if we didn’t have the big hits, we ran the bases and took bases and took chances and stole bases. We just laid the bunt down and stole bases and then someone would come through with the big hit. Throughout the entire lineup, we were able to manufacture in some way and we were aggressive and trying to push it.”

The defense was also pretty special, Dietz said.

“I think with Rachel Stadick behind the plate and Kari Helget at third, Denise [Kamm] at short, Jennie Mertz at second, I played first and Stef was pitching, there’s not a lot that got through,” Dietz said. “Denise and Kari were so sharp on that side and Jennie was the same at second and Stef obviously was a fantastic pitcher, so it had to be a pretty solid hit to get through our defense that year.”

94 team

Kamm wanted to go out a winner in her senior year and she had her best year yet. That year, the shortstop hit .457 with one home run, 12 doubles, four triples and 30 RBIs. She was also named to the All-State team.

The Greyhounds finished that season 27-1. They started out 12-0 but lost to Barnum. After that, they went on to go unbeaten, including a 5-0 win over Barnum for the state championship.

“I think as a senior, you know that is the end of your career on the high school team,” Kamm said. “You want to be successful and obviously we had been successful the year before, so there was more pressure on us to perform at that level. We lost to Barnum and we came back to face them in the state championship and it was kind of the same thing, to go out and redeem yourself and show how you really can play ball. It was pressure, but it was also confidence.”

Mertz said there was some pressure on the team and the coaches in that 94 season. They had lost four seniors the previous year, but the seniors in 1994 took over with no problems.

“I thought after that [93 title], knowing that you probably had one of the best pitchers in the state, it put a lot of pressure on us coaches,” Mertz said. “We had a lot to live up to there, everybody expected us to go to the state tournament again. We lost four seniors, but in 94 we were able to reload and go and it’s a tribute to our B and C-squad program.”

95 team

Having two state titles already in the books, it was Klaviter’s final year and the senior went out better than ever. She went 25-1 and struck out 309 batters in 166 innings and she had an ERA of .17. She earned her second straight All-State award and there were teams that wanted to scrimmage the Greyhounds just to get a look at the future Gopher.

“It was Steph’s final year and that year we played in the Burnsville tournament and the Delano tournament, but we also scrimmaged Mankato East, they all wanted to scrimmage us and have the competition of facing Klaviter before their season started. It was highlighting Steph, that was Steph’s year.”

Klaviter said at that point, the Greyhounds expected to win every game. Their only loss that year was to Maple River, a team they later beat in the Section 2A playoffs. Once they got to state, they defeated St. Bernard’s, Mound Westonka and Litchfield to finish the season at 30-1. Klaviter didn’t allow a single run at the tournament and the Greyhounds outscored their opponents 16-0 in the three games.

“We expected to win every single game when we went out there, we really did,” Klaviter said. “I don’t know if we ever think if we stopped to think that this was something special. It was just who we were and what we did and I mean, we were just having fun. It wasn’t just softball, we all played volleyball together, we all played basketball together and we were successful in all of the sports we played and it just felt like the culture for us and I think we felt that it was special from the moment that we started together. The coaching staff made us feel that way too, their leadership was phenomenal. It’s still, by far throughout my whole career, that’s the best coaches that I’ve ever had. I learned more from them than I did my whole career.”

Klaviter later went on to pitch at the U of M and she also pitched professionally. But she said those Cathedral years were special for her.

“For me, when I go back and look at my softball career, those were the ultimate days for me,” Klaviter said. “I was playing with all my best friends and it was really just as much about our relationships and our friendships and the bonding that we did and the team as it was anything else. I learned so much in those years about just working together as a team, it was just fun.

“It was where I learned to be just a part of something, a culture and a winning team,” she said. “It was pretty special. In all the teams I’ve been a part of, everywhere I’ve been a part of a team, it was truly a special time, you couldn’t recreate anything like that.”

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