Four NCAA Div. III championships
CEDAR RAPIDS —Pitching and defense carried the No. 12 Central College softball team a week ago in a doubleheader sweep of Luther College. But Sunday they were Central’s undoing as the Norse rebounded with a 9-3 victory in the Iowa Conference tournament.
Luther went on to win the tourney, which was shortened to a two-day, single-elimination event due to a jolt of late-week wintry weather. That gives the Norse the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division III tournament. Conference co-champion Central (28-8) is expected to join them in the 62-team field, which will be announced Monday at 9 a.m. in a webcast on www.ncaa.com.
Central’s Mallory Schulenberg (sophomore, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) tossed a 3-hit, eight-inning shutout over Luther April 27 and the Dutch prevailed 5-3 in the nightcap. But Luther enjoyed a breakout day at the plate Sunday, pounding out 11 hits, including a pair of home runs by Carli Radil. Central contributed to the cause with three errors. The Norse got a two-run Radil blast in the second inning, then had seven consecutive players reach base in a six-run third inning that included a two-base error for an 8-0 lead. The Dutch used four pitchers in the inning, with Kelsey Stender (freshman, Belle Plaine, Minn.) finally steadying the ship. She threw the final 4.2 innings, giving up a run on four hits with two strikeouts and no walks.
Schulenberg (12-2) absorbed only her second collegiate loss. She threw 2.1 innings and was charged with four runs on four hits with a strikeout and two walks, one of which was intentional.
“Luther played well,” coach George Wares said. “They obviously hit better.”
Central had several scoring opportunities, with eight hits while putting runners on base in six of seven innings. But the Dutch didn’t get on the board until catcher Caitlyn Meyer (senior, Newton) launched her team-high eighth home run in the fourth inning. They added more when third baseman Whitney Sowers (sophomore, Marshalltown) lashed a two-run double in the fifth.
Meanwhile, right fielder Emily Te Brink (senior, Le Mars) had a 30-game on-base streak come to an end.
The game wasn’t an ideal springboard into NCAA tournament play, but Wares said that it’s better than dealing with a 12-day layoff, which would have been the case had Sunday’s games fallen victim to the weather.
“We’ve had some really good practices,” he said. “I’m a little surprised we played as poorly as we did. But I’m glad we got to play. I think when we play again, we’ll better understand the urgency you have to bring every time.”
One encouraging sign was the return of the team’s leading hitter, second baseman Abbey Strajack (sophomore, Davenport, Assumption HS). Strajack, the leadoff hitter, missed all but a half inning of the conference season, getting injured on a steal of second base in the top of the first inning at Simpson April 3. While she’s still limited, she did get two at-bats and singled both times, showing no signs of rust in sprinting to first base to beat out an infield single. She upped her season average to .444.
“That didn’t surprise me,” Wares said. “She’s been playing well in practice. She’s still very limited in what she can do defensively but it was nice to start the game exactly the way we wanted to.”
Central, which shared its 12th league crown was ranked No. 2 in the Midwest Region behind St. Thomas (Minn.) last week and appears to be in good shape to land another NCAA berth. Nonetheless, Wares is anxious to hear it officially.
“You’re never completely sure until you see your name on the board,” he said. “I’m comfortable we’re in, but we’re not sure where we’re going to be seeded. And we want to know who we’re going to play and who else is in our regional.”
The Dutch will play host to a regional tourney for the third straight year. It’s likely it will be an eight-team affair starting with four games Thursday, although last year Central was assigned a six-team bracket. Play for a six-team regional would begin Friday. Play will conclude Sunday or Monday, with the regional winner advancing to the eight-team NCAA Division III finals at Eau Claire, Wis. May 17-21.
Central has made 24 NCAA tournament appearances, including the past four years.