Four NCAA Div. III championships
PELLA — It was all about the start.
After dodging some major damage in the top of the first inning, the Central College softball team answered in a big way with a two-run frame and rolled up a surprising 9-1, 5-inning victory over top-seeded St. Thomas (Minn.) in the NCAA Division III Pella Regional. That propels the Dutch into the championship game of the eight-team tourney Sunday at 2 p.m. at the A.N. Kuyper Athletics Complex field against the winner of a noon contest between St. Thomas and Augustana (Ill.). A Central loss would force an additional game Monday at 10 a.m. in the double-elimination tournament.
But the powerful St. Thomas bats were putting on the pressure early. An error, single and stolen base put runners at second and third with no outs. An intentional walk that loaded the bases may have ratcheted up the pressure, but pitcher Mallory Schulenberg (sophomore, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) delivered a strikeout and induced a pair of fly balls to end the threat with only one run coming across.
“We saw what they did early to Washington (Mo.) (a 5-0 St. Thomas win),” coach George Wares said. “They can end the game early with a big inning. We made a risky call with the intentional walk to load up the bases with no outs, but Mallory came through.”
Meanwhile, the return of offensive catalyst Abbey Strajack (sophomore, Davenport, Assumption HS) is helping Central get out of the blocks as well. Strajack, the team’s leading hitter who missed nearly the entire Iowa Conference season with an injury, was 4-for-4 and sparked the Dutch in the first inning with a leadoff single. Three of Central’s first four batters reached base and the Dutch scored two runs on four hits—including an RBI pinch-hit single by Karlee Rock (sophomore, Wheatland, Calamus-Wheatland HS)--while taking advantage of two St. Thomas errors.
“This is far from over but we’re playing with a lot of confidence right now, and that showed with the way we came back,” Wares said. “The players came to compete today.”
Central kept the heat on, scoring in every inning. The Dutch added two more runs in the second inning as Strajack and third baseman Whitney Sowers (sophomore, Marshalltown) delivered run-scoring hits. In the third, it was second baseman Chelsea Greiner (junior, Agency, Cardinal HS) lining her first hit of the tourney to knock in a run and the Dutch picked up three in the fourth inning on just one hit, along with three St. Thomas errors.
Catcher Caitlyn Meyer (senior, Newton) ended it in the fifth with a bases-loaded walk on four pitches following two hits and an intentional walk.
Schulenberg settled down after the first, improving to 15-2, giving up one unearned run on three hits while walking one—intentionally—and striking out four.
“For her to handle the first inning and come back the way she did was impressive,” Wares said. “She’s maturing into a real solid pitcher.”
Schulenberg’s cause was assisted by two big defensive plays in the fourth inning. Right fielder Emily Te Brink (senior, Le Mars) made another running catch, chasing down a deep fly that was quickly tailing away due to a 25 mph northwest wind. Then Meyer picked off a runner at third base to end the inning.
Also lending a hand was freshman Kelsey Stender (Belle Plaine, Minn.) who relieved Schulenberg in the fifth after St. Thomas ripped a couple of two-out singles. Stender quickly ended the threat with a four-pitch strikeout.
Contributions came from multiple sources, Wares said, giving special mention to senior Rhianna Fleetwood (Sycamore, Ill.). A first-team All-Iowa Conference pitcher a year ago, Fleetwood was injured early in the season and has had limited opportunities in the circle since. But she’s stepped up in a big way in a new role as a pinch-hitter and took on a new role as the starting left fielder Saturday, as starter Heidi Reburn (senior, New Albin, Kee HS) was at home due a death in the family. Fleetwood responded with another RBI hit and raised her average to .355.
“We’re not saying she’s not going to pitch but we think she can give us quality at-bats,” Wares said. “In the Cornell game (Thursday), she had as good of an at-bat as anyone on the team. She’s very unselfish. As a coach, you really want to see kids like that to have success.”
Wares said his squad knows that much work remains.
“Obviously when you win a game like that you have every right to be happy,” he said. “You just beat one of the best teams in the country. But we haven’t done anything yet. Still, I think we’ll be ready when the game starts. This team has been good about maintaining focus and keeping a one-pitch-at-a-time mentality.”