Four NCAA Div. III championships
DECORAH—That Central College got an eighth-inning walk-off single by designated player Abbey Strajack (freshman, Davenport, Assumption HS) to capture the Iowa Conference softball tournament championship Saturday almost seemed secondary to the grit the Dutch displayed in getting there.
The No. 6-rated sqiad (35-8) had two walk-off victories in winning three straight games in one day against nationally ranked opponents to claim their first title since the tourney was re-established in 2006. Central won the tournament under a different format in 1985, in coach George Wares’s first season.
No. 6-rated Central blanked No. 4 Luther College, 3-0, to start the day, staged a remarkable comeback from a 5-1 sixth-inning deficit to stun No. 19 Coe College 7-5 on a seventh-inning grand slam by shortstop Annie Sarcone (sophomore, Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS), then used Strajack’s hit to top the Kohawks again, 2-1 in eight innings.
The offensive highlights garnered attention but they didn’t overshadow one of pitcher Rhianna Fleetwood’s (junior, Sycamore, Ill.) best days in a Central uniform. Fleetwood (16-2) has pitched 22 straight scoreless innings, including 14 Saturday. She scattered six hits in shutting out Luther, then threw blanked Coe for the final seven innings of the title game, allowing five hits.
Despite the theatrics in the finale, it was the first win against Coe that will be firmly tucked in the memory banks of the Dutch for years to come. After the Kohawks took a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning, they broke open a tight game with a pair of sixth-inning homers that put them in command, 5-1, with ace Ashlee Simon in the pitching circle.
But the Dutch sprang to life in the bottom of the sixth as catcher Kyrie Hale (senior, Lee’s Summit, Mo., West HS) rocketed a double to the fence to bring home a run. Then center fielder Holly Von Fumetti (senior, Johnston), whose lone career home run came three years ago, belted a three-run shot over the right-field fence, apparently tying the game 5-5. But Central’s brief euphoria evaporated when the umpire ruled that one of the Dutch players failed to touch home plate and only one of the runs counted. The out ended the inning and Central’s rally, Von Fumetti was credited with a double and the Dutch still trailed 5-3.
But Central would not go away. They loaded the bases in the seventh and Sarcone lined her eighth homer of the season over the left-field fence for a 7-5 stunner.
“To have that emotional high with Holly’s home run, then the low after it was taken away, and then to come back and do it again says a lot about this team,” Wares said.
Brie Haycraft (sophomore, Eldridge, North Scott HS) got the win to improve to 10-6, pitching five innings and allowing three runs on six hits with one walk and two strikeouts. Mallory Schulenberg (freshman, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) threw two innings of relief before Haycraft re-entered, allowing one earned run on three hits with one walk and two strikeouts.
Getting the players’ feet firmly on the ground again and ready for another game seemed like a challenge but Wares said the Dutch retained their focus, although Coe went up 1-0 in the first inning. But the game was halted for 88 minutes because of lightning. After the game was resumed, Central quickly tied the game in the second inning as left fielder Rachael Everingham (senior, Georgetown, Ill., Georgetown-Ridge Farm HS) singled, Hale doubled and pinch-runner Heidi Reburn (junior, New Albin, Kee HS) scored on a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Karlee Rock (freshman, Calamus, Calamus-Wheatland HS).
Central had a bases-loaded opportunity in the seventh, but a line shot by second baseman Angela Davis (senior, West Des Moines, Valley HS) resulted in a double play.
The title-winning rally in the eighth started with two outs. First baseman Jordan Overland (sophomore, Madrid, Boone HS) and Von Fumetti each singled to left, then pulled off a double steal. Strajack spoiled a couple of 2-2 pitches, then lined the gamewinner down the third-base line.
Central mustered just three hits off Luther but made three first-inning runs stand up, then had 23 hits in the two games with Coe.
Everingham had five hits in the two Coe games and Sowers had four. Hale had four hits on the day.
“I thought our hitters battled all day,” Wares said. “Even though Holly’s home run didn’t count, she still hit it. That’s a huge lift for her and should give her a ton of confidence.
I thought Rachael Everingham, particularly in the last game, hit the ball hard. Jordan Overland did a good job of getting on base in the clutch and Karlee Rock continues to give us quality at-bats as a pinch-hitter.”
The title gives Central the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament, although there was little doubt that the Dutch would crack the 61-team field that will be announced Monday at 9 a.m. Central will host one of the eight regionals, Thursday through Monday at the A.N. Kuyper Athletics Complex field.
While Wares isn’t sure that playing a conference tourney a few days before the regional is beneficial, he’s nonetheless thrilled with the win.
“The upside to the tournament is to see the happiness of the players,” he said. “It felt like a regional tournament atmosphere. We had five games against tremendous competition and you can’t simulate that in practice. It was so intense. Every pitch mattered. You always worry about what energy everyone’s expended, but we’ve got enough time off now, and again, we have a pitching staff. Even though Rhianna threw a few more innings today, we didn’t have anyone throw too many for the weekend.”