Four NCAA Div. III championships
INDIANOLA—This was about perseverance.
Despite losing two starters to injury in the first two innings, despite falling behind by three runs, despite seeing victory slip away with two outs in the seventh inning, the No. 25 Central College softball team clawed its way to a 6-5, 11-inning victory over No. 12 Simpson College before rolling to a 12-3, five-inning road triumph Wednesday.
Catcher Caitlyn Meyer (senior, Newton) was among many who shined for the Dutch (18-5 overall, 2-0 Iowa Conference), banging out eight hits in the two games, as Central ran its win streak to nine games.
But the conference season opened with a jolt. Dutch leadoff hitter Abbey Strajack (sophomore, Davenport, Assumption HS), the team’s offensive catalyst with a .435 average, stole second base in the first inning and had a nasty collision with the Simpson shortstop, who veered into her path while reaching for an errant throw. The result was an injury that left Strajack on crutches and the remainder of her season uncertain.
Simpson (21-5 overall, 0-2 conference) then used three hits and a couple Dutch defensive miscues to plate three runs in the first inning. Adding to Central’s woes, left fielder Jordan Overland (junior, Madrid, Boone HS) was hit by a pitch in the second inning and had to leave the game as well. Her status is also unknown.
But following a one-out Simpson double in the third inning, Central regained its footing, thanks in large part to a sparkling effort by pitcher Brie Haycraft (junior, Eldridge, North Scott HS), who then entered the game in place of starter Mallory Schulenberg (sophomore, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS). Haycraft, who deals with a chronic injury and had struggled in the early going this season, retired the first 11 hitters she faced in her finest outing of the year.
“For Brie to pitch like that and to battle the way she did was a big plus for us,” Wares said. “We need her and she was very good tonight. Her off-speed pitch was good and she was locating the ball well. When she does that, she’s pretty tough.”
That allowed Central time to kick-start its offense, which stranded 16 runners in the game and couldn’t get any key early hits.
With just three hits in the first five frames and trailing 3-1, Central strung together five hits in the sixth inning, including RBI singles by right fielder Emily Te Brink (senior, Le Mars) and third baseman Whitney Sowers (sophomore, Marshalltown), and scored three times for a 4-3 lead. Meyer then blasted a solo home run to start the seventh inning and victory appeared to be in hand.
Haycraft allowed her first baserunner when she walked the leadoff hitter to start the seventh inning. Coach George Wares elected to go with freshman Kelsey Stender (Belle Plaine, Minn.) to close out the game, but after retiring the next two hitters, she gave up a line shot which bounced on top of the fence and caromed over for a game-tying two-run homer.
Schulenberg returned with two outs in the eighth inning. Central came within inches of scoring the lead run in the 10th. Courtney Meyer (freshman, Newton), playing Strajack’s spot at second base, led off with a triple but was tagged out on a tight play at the plate following a squeeze bunt. The Dutch still managed to load the bases but couldn’t coax the lead run home.
Simpson had its best opportunity in the 10th as well following a one-out triple. The Dutch issued a pair of intentional walks to load the bases and Schulenberg came through in the clutch, inducing two ground balls to third base.
Caitlyn Meyer started the 11th with a single and left fielder Heidi Reburn (senior, New Albin, Kee HS), who reached on a fielder’s choice, stole second, moved to third on a single by first baseman Katie Canney (sophomore, Adel, ADM HS) and slid home safely on a squeeze bunt by center fielder Paige Heesch (sophomore, Titonka, WCLT HS).
Simpson nearly tied it again, getting a two-out double off the fence and a walk before Schulenberg secured the final out, 3 hours and 17 minutes after the game’s first pitch. Schulenberg (8-1) got the win, giving up one earned run, seven hits and four walks—two intentional—while striking out five. Haycraft went 3.2 hitless innings, getting charged with a run, walking one and fanning five. Central outhit Simpson, 13-10.
It was an emotional win for the Dutch.
“Anytime you lose players to injury like we did with Abbey and Jordan, your primary concern, obviously, is for the players,” Wares said. “It takes a while to get over the disappointment. But we were able to regroup. The response we had, to rally after being down 3-0 and without two starters, and to battle like we did, coming back after losing the lead in the seventh, was very impressive. It’s not something a lot of teams would be able to do. This is a very special group of people, to do what they did.”
Simpson ace Kacee Arey went the distance, facing 55 batters in 11 innings, then started the second game as well. But Central jumped on top in the first inning as shortstop Annie Sarcone (junior, Des Moines, Lincoln HS) had an RBI double and Caitlyn Meyer followed with an RBI single. Arey was lifted following the inning.
Central came back with Stender (6-3), who threw 4.1 innings of shutout ball, giving up three hits with no walks and four strikeouts.
Meanwhile the Dutch added three runs in the third, as Canney had a run-scoring hit. Central scored twice in the fifth and broke it wide open in the fifth with five more tallies, relying mostly on its small-ball attack. Caitlyn Meyer had a run-scoring single.
Rhianna Fleetwood (senior, Sycamore, Ill.), who missed most of March after being struck by a line drive in the season opener March 8, entered to get the final out of the fourth inning, but then was hit by yet another line shot. She remained in the game but surrendered another hit and Stender returned to nail it down, getting a game-ending double play.
Central outhit Simpson, 13-7.
Meyer had eight hits in 10 at-bats, driving in four runs.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Wares said. “We had some pretty key injuries tonight and Caitlyn’s back now after that happened to her last season. She’s gone through two major surgeries and the way she’s bouncing back from that is pretty incredible. I’m really happy for her that she’s not only performing, but performing well.”
Meanwhile Canney had six hits and two runs scored. Sarcone had three hits, three walks and three runs scored, and Courtney Meyer had three hits and two RBIs. The Dutch stole 11 bases, including three by Te Brink.
But Wares gave much of the credit for the important sweep to his pitchers.
“We’ve said all along, that this is a pitching staff and we’re going to use them all,” he said. “It’s working well and the biggest reason it’s working is because they buy into it.”
After nearly five hours of hard-fought softball in chilly conditions, it’s a bit daunting to think that this was only the first day of another intense Iowa Conference race—and that the Dutch could be without two starters when they take the field again. Central travels to Dubuque Saturday for a 2 p.m. league twinbill with Loras College. The Duhawks are 7-8 overall and 0-2 in the league after getting swept by Dubuque 6-3 and 11-2 in five innings. But as Wares is quick to remind his players, Loras defeated the Dutch at Pella last year as the teams split a doubleheader.
“It’s a tough league when you’ve got four teams in the top 25 and several other teams that can beat you,” Wares said. “From top to bottom, it’s the best in the country. I really believe that. You’ve got to show up every time. We’ve got a 48-hour turnaround and then we’ve got to play again on the road and try not to give back what we gained today.”