Four NCAA Div. III championships
TUCSON, ARIZ.— Exceeding already lofty expectations for its deep pitching staff, the Central College softball team wrapped up its 16-game, 11-day cross-country trek with a pair of impressive shutout wins Saturday, blanking Judson (Ill.) 3-0 and Trinity (Texas) 7-0.
The arrow continues to point up for freshman Kelsey Stender (Belle Plaine, Minn.), who tossed a three-hitter against Judson, her second shutout. Stender then started the Trinity game but gave up two first-inning hits and was replaced by sophomore Mallory Schulenberg (Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) who yielded only three hits in the final 6.1 innings.
Stender (4-3) and Schulenberg (4-1) each struck out four and walked none. Schulenberg’s earned run average dropped to 0.75 as opponents are batting just .159 against her. Stender’s ERA is 1.34 with a .191 opponents’ average. Central has posted seven shutouts and only two teams managed to score two runs against the Dutch in the last 11 games.
The wins capped a spring-break surge for the Dutch, who struggled to a 2-4 start at the NFCA Division III Leadoff Classic in Columbus, Ga. last weekend, but streaked to 9-1 during five days in Arizona to move to 11-5 overall.
“We felt going in that pitching was going to be one of our strengths,” coach George Wares said. “Mallory is proven, after all that she accomplished last year, but she’s raised her game. And we thought Kelsey was going to be good but even if with the most optimistic outlook, it’s surprising that she’s been so good, so soon.”
Obviously, it’s still early and huge hurdles lie ahead, but it’s been an encouraging week, because the Dutch also made big strides in other areas. Leadoff hitter Abbey Strajack (sophomore, Davenport, Assumption HS) has rocketed to the top of the team statistics charts. She had five hits in seven at-bats Saturday and scored two runs. Strajack upped her average to a team-high .472 and has 25 hits in 16 games as well as a team-high 10 stolen bases. Right fielder Emily Te Brink (senior, Le Mars) had four hits and raised her average to .422. They’ve combined to score 30 runs.
Against Judson (7-4), a highly regarded NAIA club that belted 52 home runs a year ago, Central broke on top in the third inning. singled and scored on an RBI hit by shortstop Annie Sarcone (junior, Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS) while third baseman Whitney Sowers (sophomore, Marshalltown), who walked, later scored on a sacrifice fly by designated player Karlee Rock (sophomore, Wheatland, Calamus-Wheatland HS). Center fielder Heidi Reburn (senior, New Albin, Kee HS) got a two-out bunt single in the fourth inning, stole two bases and scored on a Strajack hit. Central finished with six hits in the game.
The Dutch got their second win over Trinity in three days, boosted by a four-run first inning, but the game may have turned on a play by the Central defense. In the top of the first, Trinity had a runner on second base with one out and got a single to center field, but the runner was cut down at the plate by a strong throw by Reburn. In the bottom half of the inning, the Dutch got back-to-back bunt singles by Strajack and Te Brink and a walk to Sowers, then brought home four runs without another hit, taking advantage of a couple of errors and force plays.
Strajack singled, stole a base and scored on a Te Brink hit in the second inning while Sarcone singled and scored on a squeeze bunt by first baseman Katie Canney (sophomore, Adel, ADM HS) in the third inning. The Dutch, who had seven hits in the game, added a tally in the sixth as Te Brink reached on a bunt single and later scored on Sarcone’s sacrifice fly.
“We got better at the plate,” Wares said. “We’re improving on our ability to come through in the clutch, which is something we hadn’t been doing.”
Central committed just two errors on the day and turned a double play, the sixth of the year.
“Defensively, these were easily the best-played back-to-back games we’ve played this year. We made some well-above-average plays in both games.”
Especially encouraging to Wares is that he expects to get additional contributions from some veteran players. Catcher Caitlyn Meyer (senior, Newton) is coming off a pair of serious injuries and made steady progress throughout the week even though her play was sometimes limited. Meanwhile senior Rhianna Fleetwood (Sycamore, Ill.), a first-team all-Iowa Conference pitcher last year, threw just 7.1 innings on the trip, getting hit by a line drive on the second day. And junior pitcher Bri Haycraft (Eldridge, North Scott HS) began to rebound after a bumpy start in Georgia. Wares had hoped to give Haycraft some innings against Judson.
“Obviously, our game plan changed,” he said. “We thought we’d go with Kelsey (Stender) for three innings but she got on such a roll.”
Fleetwood was still not in uniform Saturday, but looks to return next week. Haycraft is 2-1 with a 0.47 ERA.
“We still hope we get something out of Bri and Rhianna,” Wares said.
Given the forecast in Iowa, the Dutch may not get much outdoor practice time this week, but the team’s first priority is to get a few days of rest after the lengthy trip to Georgia and then Arizona. And Wares thinks a few days of indoor workouts should be sufficient as the team prepares for another fierce challenge on its demanding schedule. The Dutch will travel to St. Louis for four games next weekend at the Washington University/Mizuno Invitational. Central opens at 1 p.m. Saturday against No. 24-rated host Washington-St. Louis University (Mo.), a perennial NCAA Division III tourney participant, before meeting another contender, Augustana College (Ill.) at 3 p.m. Central takes on Augustana again Sunday at 9 a.m. before tackling No. 4 Illinois Wesleyan at 1 p.m. Wares said it will become obvious quickly that the Dutch still have a lot of improvements to make.
“It will be a much different environment,” he said. “The weather will be cooler and the fences will be shorter. And we’ll obviously be playing a high level of competition.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SCOTT HAYCRAFT