Four NCAA Div. III championships
PELLA — The formula still works.
A masterful pitching display, big defensive plays and aggressive baserunning combined to power the Central College softball team to a 2-1 victory over the top seed, the University of St. Thomas (Minn.), and capture the NCAA Division III Pella Regional championship Sunday. The Dutch earned their 13th berth in the eight-team NCAA Division III finals in Eau Claire, Wis. and their first trip to the finals since winning the program’s fourth NCAA crown in 2003.
Central (32-8) will take on Montclair State (N.J.) (45-3) at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Carson Park. Montclair State is rated No. 3 in the NFCA Division III coaches’ poll while Central is No. 16. The double-elimination tournament runs through next Tuesday, May 21. Tournament bracket:
Central was 4-0 in the eight-team regional, yielding just three runs in four games. Mallory Schulenberg (sophomore, Kansas City, Mo., St. Pius X HS) was the winner in all four contests, getting relief help from Kelsey Stender (freshman, Belle Plaine, Minn.). Named the tournament’s most outstanding player, Schulenberg (16-2) gave up just one run Sunday in 5.2 innings on five hits and a walk—which was intentional—while striking out four. Stender pitched 1.1 innings of hitless relief Sunday, allowing one walk, before Schulenberg returned in the sixth inning.
The Dutch largely stymied the powerful offense of No. 8-rated St. Thomas (41-7), which entered the weekend with a sizzling .366 team batting average and 41 home runs. Central snapped a 27-game Tommies’ win streak with a 9-1, five-inning triumph Saturday. St. Thomas rebounded with a 5-4 win over Augustana (Ill.) Sunday before falling to the Dutch.
“We’ve said all along it’s about pitching and defense and this team has really bought into it,” coach George Wares said. “Mallory was phenomenal, Kelsey pitched well, too, and we made some outstanding defensive plays.”
After using ace Kendra Bowe Augustana Sunday, St. Thomas elected to give freshman KatieJo Delisle her first collegiate start against the Dutch and delivered a strong performance. She got off to a bumpy start, as Central loaded the bases in the first inning. Designated player Abbey Strajack (sophomore, Davenport, Assumption HS), who went 4-for-4 Saturday, had two more hits and a walk Sunday and led off with a single to left, moved to second on an illegal pitch by Delisle, and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Left fielder Emily Te Brink (senior, Le Mars) reached on a bunt when the Tommies attempted to keep Strajack at third, then stole second. Third baseman Whitney Sowers (sophomore, Marshalltown) was hit by a pitch and Rhianna Fleetwood (senior, Sycamore, Ill.), making another start in the unfamiliar terrain of left field, drew a bases-loaded walk to bring home a run. Central then left the bases stranded, but the 1-0 lead held for six innings.
The Dutch, who had nine hits and left 10 runners on base, finally broke through again with a daring maneuver in the seventh inning. With one out and runners on first and second, left fielder Lexi Cessna (junior, Bloomington, Ill., Normal HS) punched a grounder to shortstop. St. Thomas got the force at second but Cessna beat the throw at first base to avoid the double play. Meanwhile, Sowers raced all the way home from second base, sliding just ahead of the tag.
“That was obviously a big play, but that’s what we do,” Wares said. “We say go until you’re stopped. You’ve got to assume that the defense might not get the double play.”
Meanwhile the Dutch dodged a few St. Thomas threats as they nursed a 1-0 lead. Cessna made a sliding catch into the foul-line fence in left field in the first inning. St. Thomas had three hits in the fourth inning but catcher Caitlyn Meyer (senior, Newton) erased one runner on a stolen base try and Stender entered to get the third out, stranding two runners. Central turned an inning-ending double play to end the fifth inning and with two runners on with one out in the sixth, Schulenberg retired the Tommies on a fly ball and a key strikeout.
Still, Wares knew it would be difficult to post a shutout.
“When we got that run in the top of the seventh, I felt much better,” he said.
That allowed Schulenberg to pitch more aggressively in the bottom of the seventh, and St. Thomas quickly flexed its offensive muscle as designated player Brenna Walek blasted a home run against the wind, deep over the left field fence, to lead off. But Schulenberg retired the next three hitters to send the Dutch to Eau Claire.
“Again, the composure our kids showed after (the home run) was really, really good,” Wares said. “I think that’s part of the reason we’re going (to the national finals) and a big reason we can be successful when we get there.”
Strajack, Sowers and center fielder Paige Heesch (sophomore, Titonka, WCLT HS) each had two hits Sunday. Strajack hit .462 for the weekend and joined Schulenberg on the all-tournament team. Sowers hit .364 and Te Brink batted .333.
Schulenberg was 4-0 with a 0.72 earned run average, limiting foes to two earned runs on 13 hits with five walks and 17 strikeouts in 19.1 innings. Stender posted a 0.00 ERA, giving up just one hit in 7.2 innings with a walk and seven strikeouts.
Wares, in his 29th season, has been the coach through all 25 of Central’s NCAA tournament appearances and 13 national finals trips, but said it’s all about the players.
“It’s nice as coaches to go and we’re all veteran enough that we’ve been there, but to stand back and see these players react when it was over and then to see all of the parents and the alumni players who were here today, it’s just very, very special,” he said.