Four NCAA Div. III championships
PELLA — Central College overcame an opening-game stumble and split an Iowa Conference softball doubleheader with Loras College Saturday, falling 3-2 before rolling up a 9-1 six-inning win and securing a second-place league finish.
The No. 6-ranked Dutch (31-7 overall) close the conference season with a 12-4 mark, three games behind first-place Luther College, ranked No. 4, and will carry the No. 2 seed at the six-team league tournament in Decorah next Thursday through Saturday. Central will receive an opening-round bye and play at 4 p.m. against the winner of an earlier game between third-seeded Simpson College and the No. 6 seed, still to be determined. The champion of the double-elimination tournament receives the league’s automatic berth in the 61-team NCAA Division III tournament, although the Dutch are ranked No. 2 in the Midwest Region and well-positioned for an at-large berth. Central plays host to an NCAA Division III regional May 10-14.
But the Dutch didn’t look like a tourney team in Saturday’s opener. Loras (20-16 overall, 7-9 conference) got a first-inning home run for an early 1-0 lead. Central appeared to steady the ship with two runs in the second inning but a two-run Loras home run in the third was enough to give the Duhawks the victory they needed to lock up a conference tournament berth.
Brie Haycraft (sophomore, Eldridge, North Scott HS), now 9-5, took the loss, giving up three runs on six hits and two walks with six strikeouts in 6.1 innings. Mallory Schulenberg (freshman, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) retired the final two hitters in the seventh inning.
Central had three hits in the first two innings but Loras hurler Kellie Klein kept the Dutch off-stride the rest of the way. After starting the second inning with two hits, Central only had one ball reach the outfield until there were two outs in the seventh when center fielder Holly Von Fumetti (senior, Johnston) rocked a 0-2 pitch over the left fielder’s head for a double to give the Dutch a chance. Von Fumetti and left fielder Rachael Everingham (senior, Georgetown, Ill., Georgetown-Ridge Farm HS) each had two hits in the game.
Both teams had six hits and committed two errors.
“We were not very sharp all day,” coach George Wares said. “Not to take anything away from Loras. They needed a win and they got it. But it’s just been that kind of week for us. It was kind of the same way at Buena Vista (Tuesday). But give Klein credit. She threw very well today.
“The upside is, even with all that, we still had a chance to win it in the seventh inning. That’s the encouraging part.”
Central pounced on the Duhawks in the nightcap, scoring four runs on four first-inning hits, including a two-run homer by third baseman Whitney Sowers (freshman, Marshalltown), her fourth of the year. Sowers also drove in a run with a single in the second inning, then scored on a two-run homer by shortstop Annie Sarcone (sophomore, Des Moines, Dowling Catholic HS). It was Sarcone’s eighth of the season and 14th of her career, ranking fourth on the school’s all-time list.
“It was nice for Whitney and Annie to get home runs,” Wares said. “Hopefully that now carries over.”
Central ended the game with a pair of runs in the sixth inning. Sowers and second baseman Angela Davis (senior, West Des Moines, Valley HS) each had two hits in the game. Sowers also reached on a walk as Central outhit Loras 9-6 but again committed two errors.
Davis, a four-year starter making her final regular-season home appearance, now has 186 career hits, moving into fourth place on Central’s all-time list, passing all-Americans Annie Van Westzinga (1998-2001) and Kelly Harris (2005-08).
Rhianna Fleetwood (junior, Sycamore, Ill.) scattered six hits in six innings, yielding a fifth-inning run. She had no walks with two strikeouts in raising her record to 13-2.
“To finish second in a league as good as ours is an accomplishment,” Wares said. “The depth in the Iowa Conference is as good as any in the country.”
Wares said it appears that a non-conference doubleheader at Grinnell College, slated for Wednesday, may be erased from the schedule. But if so, it will at least give the Dutch an extra day of practice prior to the league tourney.
“We took some time off last week and in the long-term, I think that will help us,” Wares said. “But now we just want to have some short, intense, quality practices. We’ll go into the conference tournament trying to get better and win as many games as we can. Hopefully that gets us to the championship.”