Four NCAA Div. III championships
PELLA — An old Iowa Conference rivalry will be extended for at least one more game as Central College will take on former league foe Cornell College in the opening round of the NCAA Division III softball tournament at Pella Thursday.
The 62-team field was announced Monday, along with pairings at eight regional sites. The Dutch (28-8) are seeded No. 2 with Cornell (22-14) No. 7 in the eight-team Pella Regional that will be staged at Central’s A.N. Kuyper Athletics Complex field Thursday through Sunday. An additional game in the double-elimination tourney, if necessary, will be played Monday. Thursday’s 4 p.m. contest will be the last of four opening-round games that day. The University of St. Thomas (Minn.) (37-5) was granted the top seed and will meet No. 8 Bethany Lutheran College (Minn.) (23-18) at 10 a.m. At noon, No. 4 Coe College (32-6) meets No. 5 Washington University at St. Louis (Mo.) (30-12) followed at 2 p.m. by No. 3 Fontbonne University (Mo.) (33-10) against No. 6 Augustana College (Ill.) (29-12).
The Iowa Conference landed three teams in the national field. Luther College (28-9), which won the league tournament and an automatic berth Sunday, is the No. 5 seed in the Whitewater (Wis.) Regional and meets No. 4 Carthage University (Wis.) (30-10) Thursday.
25th appearance-- It’s Central’s 25th Division III tournament appearance, all in the past 28 years. Only Ithaca (N.Y.) has also received 25 berths. Central has an 84-47 tournament record, winning NCAA championships in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 2003 while finishing second in 1986 and 2001, with 12 national top-five team finishes. The Dutch are in the tournament for the fourth straight season.
Central’s lineup clicked after a bumpy 2-4 start in the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Columbus, Ga. March 8-10. The Dutch went 9-1 at the Tucson (Ariz.) Invitational Games and 12-2 in the highly competitive Iowa Conference, sharing the league title with Coe. It’s the program’s 12th conference crown.
Back in Pella—It’s the 10th time that Central has served as a regional tournament host and the third year in a row. The national finals were staged at Central in 1992.
“I think it’s an advantage to play at home and it clearly is for our fans,” coach George Wares said. “We usually get very good crowds, particularly if we get good weather. And if you look at the teams that are coming in, their fans usually travel well. It should be a great atmosphere.”
Tickets—Ticket gates will open one hour before the opening game each day. Prices are $6 for adults, $3 for students and $2 for preschool children. An all-tournament pass is $15. For additional ticket information, call the Central athletics office at 641-628-5226.
Tournament website—The Pella Regional website has more detailed tournament information that will be updated throughout the weekend at http://www.central.edu/athletics/softball/13regional/index.cfm.
The road to Eau Claire—The eight regional champions will advance to the Division III finals at the University of Wis.-Eau Claire’s Carson Park in Eau Claire, Wis. May 17-21. Pairings for the finals are determined randomly and the winner of the Pella Regional will take on the winner of the Montclair (N.J.) Regional at 6:30 p.m. May 17. The Salem (Va.) Regional winner will match up with the Ithaca (N.Y.) winner. The Whitewater (Wis.) Regional winner will meet the Angola (Ind.) Regional winner while the Babson (Mass.) winner takes on the Tyler (Texas) victor.
On the air and online--A live video webcast of each Pella Regional game and live stats can be viewed through the Central athletics website at http://www.central.edu/athletics/live/. Central’s games will also be broadcast on KRLS-FM (92.1) with veteran sportscaster Trevor Castle and streamed through www.kniakrls.com. Audio play-by-play will be offered with the video webcast, with Castle handling the call for much of the weekend.
Friday’s action—The winner of Thursday’s Cornell-Central contest takes on the Augustana-Fontbonne victor Friday at 4 p.m. The Cornell-Central loser comes back against the Augustana-Fontbonne loser Friday at noon.
Four games will also be played Friday and Saturday, with two games Sunday afternoon. If an additional game is necessary, it will be played Monday at 10 a.m.
2013 meetings—Four of the other seven regional teams were on Central’s 2013 schedule, but two were weather-related casualties. The Dutch did play at Washington-St. Louis March 23 and were 7-1 winners, while Central and Coe split an April 21 doubleheader at Cedar Rapids, with the Dutch pulling out a 5-3, 10-inning victory before tumbling 7-5 in the nightcap.
Central has played six teams in the 62-team field, posting a 5-5 record. Besides Coe and Washington-St. Louis, the Dutch also met East Texas Baptist, Piedmont (Ga.), St. John Fisher (Mo.) and Luther.
National rankings—In last week’s National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s top 25 poll, St. Thomas is the highest-rated team in the Pella Regional at No. 9. Coe is No. 11 with Central at No. 12 and Fontbonne at No. 23. Washington-St. Louis, Cornell, Bethany Lutheran and Augustana were not ranked.
Overcoming injury—While several Dutch players are nursing injuries, second baseman Abbey Strajack (sophomore, Davenport, Assumption HS) is making a well-timed return. An All-America honoree as a designated player last year as a freshman, Strajack is Central’s top hitter but missed all but the first half inning of the conference season due to injury. She’s returned on a limited basis and had two at-bats in Sunday’s 9-3 loss to Luther in the conference tournament at Cedar Rapids, responding with two hits to up her season mark to .444.
“Abby did exactly what we hoped she would,” Wares said. “She’s a catalyst at the leadoff spot.”
In Strajack’s absence, Chelsea Greiner (junior, Agency, Cardinal HS) emerged as a more-than-capable replacement at second base, flashing some impressive glove work and leaving Wares happy to let her log most of the time in the field this week while trying to get Strajack at least two at-bats a game as her recovery continues.
“We knew Chelsea was a solid player but she’s stepped up beyond what any of us as coaches had expected,” Wares said. “Some of the plays she’s made were, if not game-savers, certainly inning-savers. She’s got to be happy with herself and she should be. She put in a lot of time to get to this point and now we’re a lot deeper team because of it. That’s good for us not only this year but next year as well.”
Meanwhile Jordan Overland (junior, Madrid, Boone HS), who was the starter in left field, also missed nearly all of the conference season. She’s been cleared to serve as a pinch-runner.
“Jordan’s an extremely good pinch-runner,” Wares said. “She’s very smart and she’s fast.”
Deep staff—It’s not unusual for a club to ride the pitching arm of one player during an NCAA tournament run and certainly the Dutch have done so in some seasons, but four hurlers have seen significant innings this year. With injuries hitting Rhianna Fleetwood (senior, Sycamore, Ill.), a first-team all-league pick in 2012, and Brie Haycraft (junior, Eldridge, North Scott HS), Wares has been fortunate to have options. Mallory Schulenberg (sophomore, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) and Kelsey Stender (freshman, Belle Plaine, Minn.) have logged the most innings and will continue to do so, while still getting help from Fleetwood and Haycraft.
Together, they’ve combined for a stingy 1.46 team earned run average, ranking sixth in Division III. Schulenberg is 12-2 while Stender is 10-4 and they have identical 1.38 ERAs. Haycraft is 3-2 while Fleetwood is 2-0. Freshman Courtney Meyer (Newton) is 1-0.
“We definitely have a pitching staff and not just one pitcher,” Wares said.
Record watch—Catcher Caitlyn Meyer (senior, Newton), despite coming off two significant injuries that forced her to miss a good share of the 2012 season, is climbing the school career record charts while putting together a productive 2013 campaign. She’s hitting .409 with eight homers—just one shy of the school season mark—and 26 RBIs along with a .495 on-base percentage. She ranks third in school history in career home runs (17), fifth in RBIs (105), sixth in doubles (32) and fourth in runners caught stealing (28).
Another senior, right fielder Emily Te Brink (Le Mars) is also a four-year starter. She’s tied for eighth in career runs scored (93) and 11th in stolen bases (59). Te Brink is hitting .353 with 35 runs scored and a team-high 16 stolen bases in 18 tries. She also put together a record 30-game on-base streak.
Meanwhile shortstop Annie Sarcone (junior, Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS) is already moving up the career charts as well. She’s third in career home runs (17) and third in RBIs (119). She’s hitting .330 this season with nine doubles, a triple and two homers while knocking in a team-high 27 runs.
Third baseman Whitney Sowers (sophomore, Marshalltown) is the team doubles leader with 13, tied for eighth-most in a season. She’s hitting .348 with 25 RBIs.
The Dutch got a big boost in January when Katie Canney (sophomore, Adel, ADM HS) transferred to Central. She won the starting job at first base and is hitting .340 with five homers and 23 RBIs.
Heidi Reburn (senior, New Albin, Kee HS) took over in left field following Overland’s injury after primarily serving as a pinch-runner. She’s stolen 12 bases and scored 20 runs while steadily improving her offense to match her defense. Likewise, speedy Paige Heesch (sophomore, Titonka, WCLT HS) won the center field job early in the year and her average has climbed to .280. Karlee Rock (sophomore, Wheatland, Calamus-Wheatland) has started 22 games as the designated player, hitting three homers and knocking in 24 runs. Fleetwood and Courtney Meyer have emerged as valuable pinch-hitters, batting .321 and .316, respectively.
The Dutch continue to run up a big advantage on the basepaths with 86 steals to opponents’ 19.
The Rams—Cornell was a team on the rise in Iowa Conference softball before returning to the Midwest Conference this year after 15 seasons, so Wares is not surprised that the Rams rallied to grab their first NCAA berth by winning the Midwest Conference tournament in decisive fashion.
“No question,” he said. “They still have a lot of the players they had the past two years and those teams played the teams in our league pretty tough, and they obviously continue to play them tough (noting a 4-0 victory over Coe in a doubleheader split April 24). If anyone has any doubt that they’re good, all you need to do is show them that 4-0 score.
“They have good pitching and defense and are a very quality team, which you anticipate in the NCAA tournament. I’m sure they’re going to be hungry. They went on a roll in their conference tournament and will be a real challenge.”
In the league tourney the Rams blitzed regular-season champ St. Norbert (Wis.) 9-3, then swept Lawrence (Wis.) 6-2 and 9-0.
The Rams are hitting .320 overall. Sophomore first baseman Kari Martin is batting .431 with 11 doubles, five homers and 22 RBIs. Junior catcher Abby Haubold boasts a .404 mark while sophomore shortstop Renata Rankin is hitting .368 with six homers and a team-high 29 RBIs. Pitcher Jackie Sernek is 13-3 with a 1.69 earned run average.
Winningest coach—Wares is the winningest coach in Division III softball history. A member of the NFCA Hall of Fame, he has compiled a 972-319-3 (.752) record over 29 seasons.
Associate head coach Alicia O’Brien is in her seventh year at Central after 17 highly successful seasons as head coach at Western Connecticut State University. She has an overall record of 642-289-3 (.688) and is making her 13th NCAA appearance.
Same strategy—The approach doesn’t change for tournament games, Wares said.
“The formula has been the same,” he said. “You have to pitch and play defense. You have to bring a high level of intensity without getting too tight and you have to go on the field expecting to win.”
It’s no secret that a strong start is advantageous.
“The first one is huge,” Wares said. “Staying in the winner’s bracket is very important.”
Last season’s 1-2 finish in the tourney was disappointing after winning four tournament games the previous year and placing second behind eventual NCAA champion Linfield (Ore.). Wares said a six-run loss to Luther Sunday in the league tournament reminded the team the importance of preparation and intensity.
“I think the players are excited about where we are and they want to get that bad taste out of their mouths,” he said. “They’ve responded pretty well in the past. They’d like to get on the kind of run we had two years ago, with maybe something extra.”
NCAA Division III Pella, Iowa softball regional (double-elimination)
at A.N. Kuyper Athletics Complex softball field
Thursday, May 9
10 a.m. Game1 No. 1St. Thomas (Minn.) (37-5) vs. No. 8 Bethany Lutheran (Minn.) (23-
Noon Game 2 No. 4 Coe (32-6) vs. No. 5 Washington-St. Louis (Mo.) 30-12
2 p.m. Game 3 No. 3 Fontbonne (Mo.) (33-10) vs. No. 6 Augustana (Ill.) 29-12
4 p.m. Game 4 No. 2 Central (28-8) vs. No. 7 Cornell (22-14)
Friday, May 10
10 a.m. Game 5 Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser
Noon Game 6 Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser
2 p.m. Game 7 Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner
4 p.m. Game 8 Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner
Saturday, May 11
10 a.m. Game 9 Game 7 loser vs. Game 6 winner
Noon Game 10 Game 8 loser vs. Game 5 winner
2 p.m. Game 11 Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner
4 p.m. Game 12 Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner
Sunday, May 12
Noon Game 13 Game 11 loser vs. Game 12 winner
2 p.m. Game 14 Game 11 winner vs. Game 13 winner
Monday, May 13
10 a.m. Game 15 if necessary
NCAA Division III tournament history
Team Yrs.* W L Pct. National titles
Central 25 84 47 .641 4
St. Thomas (Minn.) 21 52 37 .584 2
Washington-St. Louis 11 22 20 .524 0
Coe 13 38 26 .594 0
Augustana (Ill.) 6 3 10 .231 0
Fontbonne (Mo.) 7 2 12 .143 0
Bethany Lutheran (Minn.) 1 0 0 .000 0
Cornell 1 0 0 .000 0