Four NCAA Div. III championships
EAU CLAIRE, WIS.—The challenge from coach George Wares to his Central College softball team heading into Saturday’s NCAA Division III contest with No. 5-ranked powerhouse Texas-Tyler was both stern and direct.
Battle, he implored. The hall of fame coach thought there was some spark missing in No. 16 Central’s opening-round 4-1 loss to No. 3 Montclair State (N.J.) Friday and didn’t want his club to see its NCAA tournament end without some fierce resistance.
Battle they did as the Dutch threw everything they had at Texas-Tyler in a 2.5-hour scrap before an unearned run on a two-out hit in the bottom of the eighth inning lifted the Patriots to a 5-4 victory. Texas-Tyler (46-5) advances to meet Luther College, which was on the short end of a 9-1, five-inning score against Cortland State (N.Y.) Saturday, while the Dutch close yet another memorable campaign at 32-10.
“We just asked our players to compete and they did that,” Wares said.
Wares used 19 players, pushing nearly every button in an attempt to knock off the Patriots, but a series of opportunities slipped away. The most unusual came in the top of the fourth inning of what was an intense, scoreless struggle in the early going. Rhianna Fleetwood (senior, Sycamore, Ill.), an all-Iowa Conference pitcher who was transformed into a clutch offensive performer in an injury-scarred senior season, started in left field and re-entered the game for a one-out at-bat with two runners aboard. She lofted a ball over the shortstop’s head to apparently chase home the go-ahead run from second base. But the third bases umpire later ruled that the runner had missed the bag, not only erasing the run but awarding the second out. That could have ended the threat but on the next pitch, catcher Caitlyn Meyer (senior, Newton) roped an RBI single into right-center for a 1-0 lead. A pitch later, pinch-runner Shannon Coulson (sophomore, Bondurant, Bondurant-Farrar HS) instigated a rundown between first and second base that resulted in a doub le steal, with pinch-runner Lexi Cessna (Bloomington, Ill., Normal HS) swiping home for a 2-0 lead
But the Texas-Tyler bats finally broke through in the fifth inning. A three-run homer caused Wares to lift starter Mallory Schulenberg (sophomore, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) for Kelsey Stender (freshman, Belle Plaine, Minn.), only to have Stender greeted with a solo homer on the next pitch.
But down 4-2 in the sixth inning, the Dutch were far from finished. Third baseman Whitney Sowers (sophomore, Marshalltown) led off with a single to left, and Cessna reached on a one-out error. Meyer walked and Wares elected to pull second baseman Chelsea Greiner (junior, Eldon, Cardinal HS) to give Courtney Meyer (freshman, Newton) a two-out, pinch-hit chance. She delivered, slipping a two-run single past the third baseman to tie the score.
“That’s really the way we’ve been all year,” Wares said. “I think no matter who we’re playing, no matter what the situation, our players have taken the one-pitch-at-a –time mentality and they’ve battled and battled and battled. I’m not saying we knew it was going to be easy to come back, but we thought we had a shot.”
After the first two Texas-Tyler hitters reached base in the sixth inning, Schulenberg returned to the circle and worked out of the jam with a pair of ground balls and a fly ball to right field. The Patriots put two runners aboard with a walk and an error in the seventh inning, but Schulenberg again pulled the game out of the fire as Sowers snared a line drive to third for the final out.
But after an error, sacrifice bunt and intentional walk in the eighth, Schulenberg got the second out on a drive to center field, only to have left fielder Carli Wheeler stroke a 1-1 pitch into left-center field, deep enough to allow the winning run to score from second base.
“They swing it pretty well,” Wares said. “That seems to be their M.O. They’re a great team. We knew 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, it didn’t matter. I know in the regional they were behind East Texas Baptist 6-0 and came back and won it. Obviously they’re a very explosive team.”
Schulenberg, named a third-team all-America honoree Thursday evening, closed a stellar sophomore campaign with a 16-4 mark. She went 7.0 innings, yielding three earned runs on five hits with three walks—two intentional—and three strikeouts.
The Dutch were outhit 7-5 and committed three errors. Cessna scored two runs.
The tourney run ends the Central careers of Dutch seniors Caitlyn Meyer, Fleetwood, all-region right fielder Emily Te Brink (Le Mars), left fielder Heidi Reburn (New Albin, Lansing HS) and catcher Ashley Phipps (Pleasantville).
The abrupt end to the season never comes easily at Central, which takes pride in the energy, grit and emotion it pours into each campaign.
“Right now, a few minutes removed, a lot of people don’t understand the feeling we have,” Wares said, as emotion began to choke his voice. “Yes, we wanted to win the national championship, but mainly we just wanted to keep playing because now I’m never going to get to coach these seniors again…and that’s pretty hard. That’s really what it’s all about.”
Meyer stands as Central’s all-time leader in career slugging percentage (.578) and is ninth on Central’s career batting average list with a .360 mark while Te Brink finished at .324. Meyer is second in career on-base percentage (.457) with Te Brink 10th (.422). Meyer is sixth in doubles (32), fourth in home runs (16), fifth in RBIs (108), and first in times hit by pitch (27). Te Brink is eighth in runs scored (96), ninth in steals (62),10th in total bases (223) and tied for seventh in walks (63).
Reburn is fifth in career stolen base percentage (.833, 50-60) and tied for 13th in steals. Fleetwood is 10th in strikeouts per game (3.73), 10th in lowest opponent batting average (.252) 13th in career ERA (2.11), 13th in victories (35) and tied for 10th in appearances (84).
Shortstop Annie Sarcone (junior, Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS) is tied for second in career home runs (18), is third in RBIs (121) and tied for seventh in doubles (29).
On the season charts, Meyer tied for third in home runs (8) and eighth in on-base percentage (.472). Te Brink is eighth in runs (38). Designated player Abbey Strajack (sophomore, Davenport, Assumption HS) is fourth in season batting average (.429), 10th in on-base percentage (.469), tied for sixth in runs (39) and tied for fourth in hits (55), despite missing 14 games with an injury. Sowers is tied for eighth in season doubles (13).
Wares said time will allow his players to take satisfaction in capturing a share of the program’s 12th conference crown while making its 25th NCAA tournament appearance and a 13th trip to the national finals.
“As much as it hurts right now, it will mean a lot to these people, what they did, getting to the national tournament and the season as a whole,” he said.
Plenty of talent returns for next year as well, and Wares is confident the underclassmen will answer the challenge of preparing for that campaign.
“I think we can make another run,” he said with a smile.