JUCO softball: A memorable finish

May 8—WEST BURLINGTON — Indian Hills athletics is literally in Claire Mathews' blood.

Her grandfather, Rick, is an IHCC Hall-of-Famer both as a player and coach for the Indian Hills baseball program. Her father, Jonathan, played for Rick earning Academic All-American honors while helping the Falcons reach the JUCO World Series as both a player and a coach. Her brother, Merrick, also played two successful season at Indian Hills before moving on to the University of Iowa, where Mathews had a career highlight with an extra-inning game-winning walk-off hit for the Hawkeyes against Michigan.

After three seasons with the Warrior softball program, Claire Mathews added her name to list of memorable Indian Hills athletic program moments last Friday. The Centerville native blasted a pinch-hit two-run home run that completed a nine-run rally for Indian Hills with the season on the line at Southeastern, providing the biggest hit in the biggest game of the season for Indian Hills in an amazing 16-13 win over the Blackhawks in the third and final game of the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference semifinal series.

"As soon as that ball hit my bat, I knew that was going out," Mathews said. "The adrenaline rush was unlike anything I've ever felt before. Running home to my teammates who have worked so hard for this and believed in me, that's the best feeling anyone can ever have.

For Mathews, it was an incredible payoff for an athlete that finally earned a memorable moment of her own wearing the same Indian Hills maroon and gold that many members of her family have also worn proudly over the years.

"It's all about being loyal to the program," Mathews said. "This program has given me so much. It's given my family so much. It's great to be able to give something back in some small way."

Mathews may not have dreamed she would be the one to complete an epic comeback for the Indian Hills softball team, but there was confidence from the third-year sophomore that a comeback could happen. Even after a disastrous opening inning in which Southeastern pounded out nine runs on seven hits, aided by two key errors that made all nine runs unearned, Mathews didn't stop believing that Indian Hills would find a way to win.

"I honestly never felt down. I knew we could put the ball in play. I knew the better team would come out on top and, statistically, we were the better team," Mathews said. "We've had some ups and downs this season, but I knew we'd find a way to put it together."

Indian Hills started to make believers out of more than just Mathews in the second inning as a two-run home run by Courtney Locke helped ignite a five-run rally with two outs for the Warriors. Three straight walks loaded the bases for Tatum Aragon, who was hit by a pitch to bring in IHCC's third straight run.

Claire Tipton then delivered a strike at the plate, lining a two-run double into right cutting the Southeastern lead to 9-5. The Warriors were a pitch away from bringing the tying run up in an inning that began with a nine-run deficit before Blackhawk relief pitcher Duanna Coyle came back from a 3-1 count to strike out Ava Smith, ending the Warrior threat.

Belief, however, was alive and well in the IHCC dugout.

"It wasn't even that we were mad or upset after the first inning. There's just a lot of trust and moments of encouragement," Indian Hills head softball coach Tarah Rayos said. "We had trust in people. Even if they struck out or popped out, we knew the next batter was ready to go."

Southeastern (27-18) tried to dampen those hopes for a Warrior comeback in the bottom of the second inning. Three more fielding errors opened the door to another productive inning for the Blackhawk bats with four more unearned runs scoring on four hits, including Ella Florey's second run-scoring hit in as many innings as Southeastern answered back to build a 13-5 lead bringing Rayos out to the pitching circle for a conversation with her team.

"I'm not a coach that swears a lot, but that was a moment we needed something to hype us up," Rayos said. "I kind of included a hype-up swear. It got some smiles out of the girls. There were a few that even said that we can do this and we can make it happen."

Ashlynn Sheets, like Mathews a Southeast Iowa product coming over to the Warriors from Ottumwa High School, gave Indian Hills a chance to stage their comeback. Despite giving up 12 hits over 6 1/3 innings, Sheets didn't allow an earned run in the contest and pitched five straight scoreless innings stranding three Blackhawk baserunners in scoring position including two that were stranded at third base.

"I can see the ball coming off the bat, so when I see it spinning off the bat, I can tell those pitches are not being struck solidly," Sheets said. "Our defense started to improve on those balls that were a little bit tricky to field earlier in the game. I just trusted myself and my defense behind me. We had a couple rough innings, but we came together to make the plays we needed to make."

Five outs away from elimination in the fourth on the mercy rule, Indian Hills continued their comeback as Tipton followed up a one-out double by Aragon with a three-run home run over the fence in right cutting the Southeastern lead 13-8. Jenna Lemley added a home run of her own two batters later, sending IHCC into the fifth inning trailing by just four runs.

Lauren Summers struggled to fire in strikes in relief for Southeastern in the fifth, helping Indian Hills continue the rally. Two walks, a hit batter and three wild pitches allowed the Warriors to bring in two runs with two outs cutting Southeastern's lead to 13-11.

That brought up Mathews, who had begun taking swings outside the dugout in the bottom of the fourth in anticipation of being called on to hit off the bench.

"I feel like I've been an automatic out at the plate the last couple of weeks," Mathews said. "I tried to stay positive. I kept telling myself there had to be a reason why I was striking out or not finding a hole when I put the ball in play. There had to be a reason for it. This was that reason."

With Aragon at second base, a hit by Mathews would have been enough to keep the comeback going by cutting Southeastern's nine-run lead down to one. Mathews instead erased the rest of the Blackhawk advantage driving a pitch over the fence in center setting off a wild celebration both at home plate and in the Indian Hills dugout.

"I had this planned out in my head the night before," Mathews said. "I knew I was either going to come up as the tying or go-ahead run and I was going to hit a home run. I had complete faith in myself. I knew it was going to happen."

Indian Hills closed out the comeback by scoring twice in the sixth on RBI groundouts that brought in Eva Fulk and Peyton Raley as Blackhawk pitchers continued to struggle throwing effective strikes. Sheets, meanwhile, pitched around a two-out triple by Florey, forcing Summers to ground out representing the tying run in the bottom of the sixth before Fulk added an RBI triple in the seventh, setting the stage for a two fly outs and a strike out after a lead-off hit by Abby O'Dean to complete one of IHCC softball's most memorable wins.

"We just kept telling each other not to be content and not to be satisfied," Sheets said. "We just kept chipping away. We just kept scoring runs. We played smart. We played disciplined. It was a great full-circle moment for everything we've preached to each other all season."

The incredible season-extending comeback win at Southeastern could not be duplicated this past weekend in the best-of-three regional final. Iowa Western followed up an 8-1 win in the opening game against the Warriors on Sunday with a 10-4 win in game two, scoring six runs in the bottom of the sixth to complete the championship sweep bringing IHCC's season to a close with a final record of 35-24.

Indian Hills may not have been able to duplicate the magic of Friday's comeback win at Southeastern against the Reivers, falling short of winning the program's ninth straight ICCAC postseason title. Despite the season coming to an end, the Warriors can always look back on a magical day in West Burlington with a smile.

"We proved that we are a very gritty team. I think that really resonated at the end of the season," Rayos said. "We proved we were not going to go down this season without a fight."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.