Four NCAA Div. III championships
PELLA —By surviving a forgettable opener, the No. 11 Central College softball team set the stage for a memorable milestone as a doubleheader sweep of Webster University (Mo.) Sunday put coach George Wares one victory away from becoming the first coach in NCAA Division III history to post 1,000 wins.
Three Dutch pitchers were tagged for 13 hits while Central (22-4) committed three errors but outlasted Webster 10-7 before blanking the Gorloks 10-0 in the five-inning nightcap. Shortstop Annie Sarcone (senior, Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS) (left) had a pair of homers, giving her a school-record three straight games with a round-tripper. She’s got four on the season, along with 37 RBIs.
A shot at 1,000--Wares, in his 30th season, is the winningest coach ever in Division III with a 999-327-3 mark. He’ll get a shot at a 1,000th win less than 24 hours later Monday, but it won’t come easily as the Dutch have to travel to Decorah to take on No. 5 Luther College at 3 p.m. in a key Iowa Conference doubleheader. The games were originally slated for last Tuesday, but were postponed due to unplayable field conditions.
Central then journeys to Storm Lake Wednesday for a 3 p.m. league twinbill with Buena Vista before returning home Saturday for a 2 p.m. doubleheader with Loras.
Wares has piloted Central to four NCAA Division III championships and 25 NCAA tournament berths in his previous 29 seasons. Among his 999 wins are 88 tourney victories, the most of any active coach. Central made its 13th trip to the national finals last spring, tying for seventh.
But when Wares looks back, it’s doubtful that Sunday’s opener will make his mental highlight reel. Pitching and defense, the cornerstones of Central’s success, didn’t live up to his expectations. And as always, the veteran coach didn’t hide his feelings.
“We weren’t very good,” Wares said. “Everything we pride ourselves on, we didn’t do. We didn’t pitch well, we didn’t help our pitchers when they didn’t pitch well and we gave up way too many extra outs. You can say we did some stuff offensively but the reality is, we played arguably as poorly as we have all season.
“Fortunately, we still got the win and fortunately, we came back in the second game and got a little better taste in our mouths.”
A three-run homer by designated player Karlee Rock (junior, Wheatland, Calamus-Wheatland HS) gave Central a seemingly comfortable 3-0 first-inning lead. But Webster (6-12) came back swinging, with seven runs in the next four innings.
Pitcher Mallory Schulenberg (junior, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) was lifted in the fourth inning in favor of Brie Haycraft (senior, Eldridge, North Scott HS). But when the next two hitters reached base, Wares went with Trisha Smith (sophomore, New Hampton), who induced an inning-ending double play, one of four DPs on the day, including three started by third baseman Whitney Sowers (junior, Marshalltown).
Smith (9-0) got the win with 3.2 innings of relief, allowing an unearned run on a hit and two walks while striking out three.
Central was outhit 13-9 but got home runs from Rock and Sarcone and took advantage of five Webster errors.
Haycraft (5-1) came back with a shutout in the nightcap, working around six hits. She allowed no walks.
Central took control early, with nine runs in the first two innings. The Dutch had seven hits in four innings, and benefited from four more Webster errors.
“I thought our defense responded,” Wares said. “And getting up early offensively was big. We needed that. We needed it for Brie and for our pitching staff because I didn’t want to put any more innings on Trish (Smith) or Mallory (Schulenberg).”
Wares gave the Gorloks credit for the way they swung the bat.
“That’s what they do,” he said. “They had a good approach at the plate. Even in the second game, they had some very good at-bats.”
Sarcone scored three runs while Sowers had two more hits. Sowers is off to such a torrid start that a 3-for-6 effort in Sunday’s games actually dropped her average to a still sizzling .556. She sports a .621 on-base percentage.
Central stole eight more bases Sunday. They’re dominating opponents in base thefts, 75-6. Center fielder Paige Heesch (junior, Titonka, WCLT HS) has 12 steals and Sarcone has 11. Eight Central players have at least five.
Despite Central’s early fielding misadventures Sunday, the Dutch have a solid .965 fielding percentage for the season. Opponents have committed 56 errors to Central’s 24. And the Central offense features eight hitters batting .300 or better, contributing to a team batting average of .368, although that mark will likely drop in league play, Wares said. Central’s pitchers have combined for a 1.63 earned run average.
The Dutch will be playing for the third straight day Monday but with six conference games in the next six days, they’ll need to be in high gear. Wares thinks they will.
“I think we’ll be fine,” he said. “We (played three straight days) last week and three of our four games this weekend were run-rule games, so we didn’t have to extend them and we didn’t have to put a lot of pitches on any of our pitchers. We knew this was going to happen and we’re ready to go.”
The intensity level kicks up even higher in what is arguably Division III’s deepest softball league.
“Now I think our players who haven’t been through it will find out what it’s like to play Iowa Conference softball,” Wares said. “We’ll know a lot about ourselves, not just after (Monday) but then to come back and have to go to Buena Vista Wednesday. That’s three pretty tough days as far as road trips we’re going to make.”
Nothing comes easily in conference action, Wares said.
“But I like our approach right now,” he said. “We’re pretty focused, even though we were so bad in the first game today. We have a pretty veteran team so they know what it’s like in conference games. If we lose the first one (Monday), we’ve got to come back and find a way to win the second one. If we win the first one, you know you’re not necessarily going to get the second one. And if you’re fortunate enough to sweep, you could go to Storm Lake and lose.
“So it’s just one pitch at a time,” he said.
That strategy has done the job for Wares 999 times, but for now, he’s just hoping it’s good enough for the next one.