Four NCAA Div. III championships
PELLA — An old formula brought familiar results as pitching and defense carried the No. 14 Central College softball team to a doubleheader sweep of No. 24 Luther College Saturday, 1-0 in eight innings and 5-3, to claim a share of the program’s 12th Iowa Conference title.
It was Central’s first doubleheader sweep of the Norse since 2006 and let the Dutch wrap up the regular season with a 27-6 record and a 12-2 league mark, sharing first place with Coe College. The Kohawks won the tiebreaker to carry the No. 1 seed into next week’s league tournament on the basis of least runs per game allowed in conference play. The six-team, double-elimination tourney will be staged at Cedar Rapids Thursday through Saturday. Central, the defending tournament champ, will open at 4 p.m. against the winner of a noon game between No. 3 seed Luther and No. 6 Buena Vista. Coe plays at 2 p.m. against the winner of a 10 a.m. game between No. 4 Simpson and No. 5 Dubuque. The tourney champion receives the league’s automatic berth in the 62-team NCAA Division III tournament.
Designated player Karlee Rock (sophomore, Wheatland, Calamus-Wheatland HS) rocketed a two-out, walk-off double off the right-center field fence in the ninth inning to chase home third baseman Whitney Sowers (sophomore, Marshalltown) from first base in the opener. That ended a scoreless struggle that was reminiscent of the pitcher’s duels the Dutch frequently endured in the 1980s. Luther ace Becca Girvan (15-5) stymied Central on just three hits through the first seven innings. But the Dutch finished with four hits and drew eight walks while striking out 10 times.
Meanwhile Central’s Mallory Schulenberg (sophomore, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) sparkled with a 3-hit shutout, striking out six with no walks to improve to 12-1.
“It was one of those (games) where you just don’t know if you’re going to score but we felt confident with the way Mallory was throwing and the defense was playing,” coach George Wares said. “I could have seen that game going 14 or 15 (innings.)
“I think it was maybe the best game of (Schulenberg’s) career. She came up big. She was in command of the count most of the time. And obviously our defense played well.”
Annie Sarcone (junior, Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS) made some pivotal plays at shortstop and second baseman Chelsea Greiner (junior, Agency, Cardinal HS) continued to shine as she fills in for injured starter Abbey Strajack (sophomore, Davenport, Assumption HS).
Catcher Caitlyn Meyer (senior, Newton) hammered her seventh home run over the left-field fence to give Central a 1-0 lead in the second inning of the nightcap, then delivered a bases-loaded double to drive in three more in a four-run third inning. But Luther used four hits off Dutch starter Kelsey Stender (freshman, Belle Plaine, Minn.) to score three runs in the fourth. Brie Haycraft (junior, Eldridge, North Scott HS) ended the rally and tossed 3.1 scoreless innings for her first save. She struck out one and walked none.
“Brie came in and did a phenomenal job to close the game,” Wares said.
Central had just eight hits on the day, but pitching and defense carried the day.
“We needed that,” Wares said. “We played 15 innings and gave up zeros in all but one against a very good team. Our defense played, from beginning to end--take away one inning--as well as we’ve played all year in back-to-back games.”
More challenges lie ahead but for now, Wares is savoring a conference title that was accomplished despite the team losing two starters in the season’s first league game. Strajack, the team’s leading hitter with a .429 mark, and left fielder Jordan Overland (junior, Madrid, Boone HS) have been sidelined since April 3. Overland, out with a wrist injury, returned as a pinch-runner Saturday.
“It says a lot about this team and a lot about this team’s grit,” Wares said. “They’ve sort of been playing so that Jordan and Abbey can get a chance again. Jordan got to pinch-run today and made a nice slide at the plate and we’re pretty optimistic that we’ll have Abbey back, if not for the conference tournament, then by the regional. That would be very nice for them to get some more action.”
It’s Central’s second conference crown in the past three seasons and its third in the past five.
FULL STORY TO COME