By SCOTT JACKSON
Courier sports writer
---- — OTTUMWA – It was quite a different feeling going into the regional tournament last year.
Sure, this year Iowa Western again is going in not only as the top team in the tournament, but also as the defending NJCAA national champion. That, however, is where the similiarities end between the jugernant from Council Bluffs that arrived at the Region XI postseason tournament last year and the team that arrived in Muscatine this year on the heels of being swept on Tuesday by their biggest rival.
Last year, it was hard to imagine anyone in the country beating the Reivers. As it turned out, few did as Iowa Western dropped just three games all year on the way to winning their second-straight national title.
This year, Iowa Western enters postseason play on the heels of two losses handed to them by an Indian Hills team that was talking a very confident tune Tuesday. After coming so close several times this year to knocking off the Reivers, and finally coming through in their final two regular season chances, the Falcons are very confident they can do it again when both teams join Marshalltown and Muscatine this weekend in putting their seasons on the line at the Region XI baseball tournament.
"It was nice to finally get the win over Iowa Western after they had beaten us six times earlier this season," freshman pitcher Derek Kawlewski said. "It lets us know we can do it. Now we've got some great momentum to take down them and whoever else we have to take down at the regionals."
First up for the Falcons to have to take down will be Marshalltown, who certainly made everyone in the region aware of their presence when they stunned Iowa Western themselves by winning three of four games against the Reivers three weeks before the end of the regular season. The 23-20 Tigers were the only team to split their season series with the two-time national champs, winning games as low scoring as 2-1 in Council Bluffs and as high scoring as 12-11 in Marshalltown with the Reivers.
Marshalltown is a very familiar foe for fans of Indian Hills, and the surrounding communities. The Tigers are not only coached by for Falcon Rich Grifie, they feature several former local talents including their power hitting leader Andrew Utterback who once stared in multiple sports at Sigourney and now leads the Tigers with six home runs and a .582 slugging percentage.
Three former Ottumwa Bulldogs, Ben Ryder, Zack Throckmorton and Tyler Evans as well as former Centerville star Richard England will also be taking on the Falcons. When it comes right down to it, hall-of-fame head coach Cam Walker isn't taking anybody lightly.
"Baseball's the same for everybody. It's still 90 feet between bases. The mound's still 60 feet and 6 inches," Walker said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing. We've still got to focus on playing our best baseball. If we can play that game, we're capable of beating a lot of teams."
Nobody may be more excited to see the postseason get under way, especially against Marshalltown, then Falcon first baseman Taylor Ostrich. The Carroll native struggled at times this season to find a consistant place as a run-producing threat in the Falcon lineup, until IHCC's pivitol four-game series with the Tigers with both teams jockeying for position in the race for the regional title.
By the time the weekend was over, Ostrich had more than established himself as one of the most dangerous hitters in the entire region. Eight hits including seven for extra bases, 14 RBI and six runs scored paced IHCC to a high-scoring weekend as the Falcons put up 45 runs in four games, winning three to give themselves a chance to chase down Iowa Western in the final weeknd of the regular season.
Ostrich closed the regular season Tuesday going 4-6 at the plate with two more homers and five RBI, giving the Carroll native a team-best 41 for the season.
"Hopefully all of our hitters can keep up the momentum we've gained over the last couple of weeks," Ostrich said. "We just have to play like we play. It's easier said than done, but we feel like we're the most confident team in this region, but we really do feel like no one can beat us but ourselves."
"It's just us playing ourselves this weekend. We just have to show up ready to go."
The tournament kicks off at 11 a.m. with fourth-ranked (DI) Iowa Western (41-12) playing Muscatine (10-35) on the Cardinals' home diamond, Tom Bruner Field. After IHCC and Marshalltown meet in game two, the first elimination game will be held at 5 p.m. between the two teams that lose the opening two games.
Saturday's slate will open featuring the winner of games one and two at 11 a.m. The winner of game three will face the loser of the Saturday morning game at 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon. No team will play more than three games in one day, meaning the tournament is likely to extend into Sunday.