JUCO softball: Warriors stay in regional hunt

Apr. 25—WEST BURLINGTON — As big as the past weekend was for the Indian Hills softball to compete against a nationally-ranked opponent, the true feel of the postseason has been in the air this week for the Warriors.

With eight regional games left to play, any hope of hosting any postseason contests this season rested on winning almost every remaining contest in the regular season. After suffering a heartbreaking 7-6 loss in nine innings on Monday to open a doubleheader at Southeastern, the margin for error completely disappeared with seven regional games left for Indian Hills.

The Warriors moved through the first three of those seven must-win games decisively. Indian Hills finished off Monday's doubleheader at Southeastern with a 13-4 win over the Blackhawks, clubbing four extra base hits including Claire Mathews second home run of the season.

Mathews wouldn't have to wait long to connect on her third home run, hammering a ball over the fence in Marshalltown on Wednesday during the second game of another must-sweep Iowa Community College Athletic Conference doubleheader. Julia Kwakernaak added two home runs of her own in the opening game against the Tigers, leading IHCC to an 18-6 win to open the twinbill before a 12-2 win in the nightcap sent Indian Hills back home for their final four games of the regular season still in position to earn at least a share of the ICCAC regular-season title which could give the Warriors home-field advantage throughout postseason play.

"Everything we've done and everyone we've played so far this season has prepared us to get to this point," Indian Hills head softball coach Tarah Rayos said. "We're a fighting team. We're going to work hard. We're going to have some grit to us.

"It's go time. Whoever we play, we have to continue to have a chip on our shoulder."

The Warriors were hoping to start the final week of the regular season on a winning note, facing Southeastern in a battle for potential home-field advantage in a best-of-three regional semifinal showdown next week. Three hits in the opening inning, including a lead-off single by Eva Fulk and a one-out RBI knock by Tatum Aragon, got the Warriors off to a quick 1-0 lead against the Blackhawks.

Indian Hills, however, failed to add to the lead in the early innings stranding runners in scoring position in each of the first four innings, including a pair of chances in the first three innings in which the Warriors could not come up with a run-scoring hit with one out. Southeastern capitalized, tying the game at 1-1 with a pair of two-out hits that brought in Haley Nelson in the bottom of the third.

The Warriors responded with a two-out rally of their own in the fourth as six straight batters reached base. Claire Tipton doubled in two runs, opening a 4-1 lead for Indian Hills, before a run-scoring single by Aragon and a pair of Blackhawk errors allowed IHCC to head into the bottom of the fourth with a 6-1 advantage.

That lead would be gone before the Warriors could get back to the plate. Two fielding errors opened the door for a five-run response by Southeastern, including a clutch two-out home run off the bat of Maggie Vasa that tied the game at 6-6.

"We just talked in our huddle about keeping it simple. It's all about seeing the ball and hitting the ball," Vasa said. "I thought when I that ball that the wind was going to hold it up. I was saying a little prayer going around the bases just hoping it would have enough to get over the fence."

While the Blackhawks came alive at the plate, Indian Hills struggled against relief pitcher Navy Clark. The Warriors put just three base runners on against Clark over five innings, giving the Blackhawks (22-16, 8-4 ICCAC) a chance to push the winning run across home plate.

Alivia Ruble, however, came up big in relief for the Warriors. The freshman from Southeast Warren struck out Ella Florey with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, then sent the game into extra innings striking out Piper Mills with the winning run at third base in the bottom of the seventh.

"I tried not to make it as big as it was. I just trusted my spin and trusted everyone behind me," Ruble said. "It's just a matter of focusing on my spot one pitch at time. As long as I hit my spots, I feel like that's better even if a pitch doesn't have any spin."

Kwakernaak nearly put Indian Hills on top in the ninth, driving a two-out pitch deep to center missing a solo home run by just a few feet. Clark responded by forcing Hannah Simpson to ground out to second after Kwakernaak's two-out double, keeping the game tied at 6-6.

After tying the game with a home run, Vasa closed out the game by leading off the bottom of the ninth with a double into right-center field. After moving to third on a sacrifice bunt, Vasa dashed home on a wild pitch by Ruble allowing Southeastern to briefly move ahead of Indian Hills in the ICCAC standings.

"It was a battle between two great teams," Vasa said. "If you stay together, believe in your teammates and continue to pass the bat, good things will happen."

The Warriors again used a big inning to open a lead in game two against Southeastern, scoring six runs in the top of the second inning to snap a 1-1 tie. This time, however, Indian Hills built on their advantage pushing another six runs across the plate in the fourth to take a commanding 13-2 edge on the way to securing a much-needed doubleheader split.

Fulk collected three hits, including a double, and scored three of IHCC's 13 runs in the second game at Southeastern while driving in two more. Tipton tripled and scored while driving in two runs in the nightcap.

"I think we sometimes struggle with doubting how good we truly are," Kwakernaak said. "We've proven this year we can be right up with some of the best teams in the country. We do a pretty good job of putting pressure on the defense and putting the ball in play. Anytime you hit the ball, there's at least a chance you can force the other team into an error. If the other team starts having success at the plate, it seems to give us a kick to let us know we need to start scoring some more runs."

Kwakernaak connected on her team-leading 11th and 12th home runs of the season on Wednesday, driving in five runs while scoring three times as the Warriors lit up the scoreboard in game one against Marshalltown (6-18, 2-12 ICCAC) scoring three times in each of the first two innings. Courtney Locke and Ava Smith also went deep in the opener while Tipton added three hits, including a pair of doubles, two RBI and two runs scored as the Warriors pulled away with six runs in the fourth and fifth after having their early lead cut to 6-4.

Two more doubles by Tipton and three more home runs helped Indian Hills complete the doubleheader sweep against the Tigers. Smith went 3-3 with a double and three runs driven in while Mathews connected on her second double of the twinbill and a home run, helping IHCC jump out to a 4-0 lead after one inning as part of an 18-hit attack in game two and 33-hit attack in the doubleheader.

Indian Hills (30-20, 8-4 ICCAC) hosted Iowa Western on Thursday needing a sweep to stay alive in hopes of catching the Reivers (32-16, 12-2 ICCAC) for the regular-season regional title. Weather also forced the Warriors to move their final doubleheader of the regular season back to Monday as Indian Hills faces Southwestern (12-24, 2-10 ICCAC) on Sophomore Day potentially needing two more wins to avoid hitting the road to open regional tournament play next Wednesday.

"We definitely have something to prove against Iowa Western," Kwakernaak said. "Our plan is to win every game we play from this point forward. We've learned from our losses and used those lessons to get better to win the games that really matter.

"We always we know that we have somebody behind us," Ruble added. "We can always just trust everybody."

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