JUCO softball: Warriors stay alive

May 2—WEST BURLINGTON — It could have ended up being a season-ending gut punch for the Indian Hills softball team.

Just minutes after completing a seven-run rally for the lead in the top of the seventh, the Warriors let the opening game of the best-of-three Iowa Community College Athletic Conference semifinal series slip through their fingers. Two errors aided a seven-run rally in the bottom of the seventh for Southeastern which ended with a walk-off three-run home run by Maggie Vasa, clinching a wild 15-12 win for the Blackhawks.

Suddenly, Indian Hills had gone from having a chance to advance to the regional finals to fighting just to extend their season. The Warriors had just 20 minutes to recover both emotionally and physically before returning to the field for a must-win contest.

"Everyone wanted to bounce back and show (Southeastern) as well as everyone that was watching that we're capable of so much more," Indian Hills sophomore Julia Kwakernaak said. "Maybe we needed that pressure to be put on us, but we wanted to come out for the next game with a bang."

Kwakernaak provided Indian Hills with that bang right away in game two, hammering a two-run home run over the fence in center field at the Wagner Athletic Complex on Wednesday giving the Warriors a 3-0 first-inning lead. Kwakernaak added her second home run of the game, and team-leading 16th home run of the season, during an explosive second inning that included three home runs that helped Indian Hills put six more runs on the board opening an eight-run lead on the way to a 10-2 win in five innings setting up a third and decisive contest in the regional semifinal series on Friday at noon in West Burlington.

"The conversation we had was to decide how much longer we want to play together. I'm not ready to be done with these girls. I don't think they're done with each other," Indian Hills head softball coach Tarah Rayos said. "I'm very passionate about this sport and all the work we've put in. I just want to see them continue to be gritty with it when we go into game three."

Kwakernaak carried a little extra motivation into Wednesday's second game with Southeastern. Leading 12-8 entering the bottom of the seventh, Kwakernaak misplayed an opening ground ball off the bat of Ella Florey at third base.

Florey would eventually score the first of Southeastern's seven unearned runs that closed out game one, coming in on a one-out RBI single to center by Rylee German. Duanna Cole grounded out to second for what would have been the final out of the game, which would have clinched the opening game for the Warriors.

Instead, the extra out created by the error kept the Blackhawk rally alive. Back-to-back two-out RBI doubles by Piper Mills and Gracie Wilt brought in the tying runs for Southeastern before IHCC's seventh error of the game brought Vasa up.

After hitting a game-tying home run and scoring a winning run on a wild pitch earlier this season to beat Indian Hills, Vasa fouled off two pitches against Indian Hills freshman Alivia Ruble. On Ruble's third pitch, Vasa drove a pitch over the fence to complete Southeastern's incredible opening-game comeback.

"The hard thing is that I feel as confident defensively as I do offensively. Obviously, errors happen, so I really try to separate those," Kwakernaak said. "I try to make up any mistakes I make in the field at the plate. You never want to make any errors you definitely want to win a game when you're leading by four runs in the final inning.

"All I kept thinking about between the games was that I wanted to spend more time with these girls. If we can win, no one will think about the plays I didn't make. I felt like staying mindset and kept a positive mindset going into the second game."

Indian Hills showed resiliency twice in the first game of the postseason series, erasing a 4-0 deficit in the fourth inning. Jenna Lemley cut the Southeastern lead in half with a two-run hit to left before coming home on a game-tying home run to left by Tatum Aragon, the first of two home runs hit in the opening game for the Warrior sophomore outfielder.

"I just wanted to feel the ball good coming off the bat," Aragon said. "I was trying not to let the moment get too big and just trust myself. I tried to think of it as a 0-0 ballgame. I'm more of a player that likes to hit line drives and doubles. The ball just happened to go over the fence twice for me."

No lead proved to be safe in the opening game on Thursday. Indian Hills (34-22) edged in front of Southeastern (27-17) for the first time in the fifth on a two-out solo home run by Claire Tipton, the second of the seven home runs hit by the Warriors in the doubleheader.

Ashlynn Sheets preserved the lead in the bottom of the inning, getting out of a bases-loaded jam striking out Wilt before forcing Haley Nelson to pop out. Southeastern, however, would move back in front in the sixth as back-to-back hits by Vasa and Florey tied the game at 5-5 before an error, a bases-loaded walk and a two-run single by Mills put the Blackhawks ahead 8-5 heading into the seventh.

"It was definitely an emotional roller coaster," Rayos said of the opening game. "Defensively, that's what hurt us. We just didn't make the adjustments and make the routine plays."

Indian Hills, however, showed more grit in the seventh. Base hits by Eva Fulk and Peyton Raley followed a lead-off walk drawn by Courtney Locke, putting the tying runs on base with no outs.

Tipton and Kwakernaak each drew bases-loaded walks for the Warriors, cutting the Blackhawk lead to 8-7. Two batters later, Lemley put Indian Hills on top with a line-drive double past third base bringing in Raley and Tipton to put IHCC back on top 9-8.

Two pitches later, Aragon delivered her second home run of the game. The one-out three-run blast to right clinched a three-hit, five-RBI effort for the Warrior sophomore.

"I don't think it really hits me until I get back to the dugout and I'm out of breath from screaming that I realize that something like that really happened," Aragon said of seventh-inning homer. "That's just the game of softball. I try not to make it too big."

Home runs by Tipton and Ava Smith helped Indian Hills put game two away. Fulk added an RBI single to left in the fourth inning, putting the Warriors on the verge of clinching the second game of the series.

"If you look at the games with Southeastern this year, the way they've won against us is with late runs. They haven't beaten us. We've beaten ourselves," Kwakernaak said. "We need to come out for this final game and break this cycle. They may have gotten us three times. They will not get us four times."

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