By SCOTT JACKSON Courier sports writer
---- — OTTUMWA – New team, new colors.
Same old success for Jim White at the Ottumwa Softball Classic.
After making so many successful trips of the years as the longtime head coach at Clear Creek-Amana to the almost four decade-old tournament in Wapello County, White wasn’t going to let a change in his job title change his plans for the first week of July. In his first year as head coach of the equally successful Solon softball program, White brought yet another great team to Ottumwa looking for the same kind of success he enjoyed with the Clippers.
“I always look forward to the chance to play here at the Classic,” White said. “This is maybe Solon’s second ever trip here, but I think this is my 19th. It’s always been a big deal for me to bring a team here to participate.”
One day in, White and his Spartans have put two wins in the bank after scoring wins over Cardinal and Cedar Rapids Jefferson. Solon scored nine unanswered runs, including five in a row to stop their opener with Cardinal in the sixth for a 9-1 victory over the Comets, then held off a late rally by the fifth-ranked team in Class 5A as left fielder Riley Ogden threw out J-Hawk pinch runner Avery Guy at home to end a 4-2 win over an Eastern Iowa Metro rival.
“We’re up by (Jefferson), but we don’t get to see them very often,” White said of the meeting with Jefferson. “Both programs have a lot of respect for each other. It’s nice to get the opportunity to play them down here.”
The rare battle of tradition-rich powers from the Eastern Iowa metro area was every bit as good as advertised. Solon had the lead from start to finish thanks to a solid start by Emily Ita, who took a no-hitter into fifth inning while the Spartans provided the sophomore pitcher a 3-0 lead.
Jefferson catcher Maddie Hansen, however, erased nearly the entire deficit herself. The J-Hawk all-state sophomore catcher powered her seventh home run to deep center field, the ninth homer hit on day one at Huston Field, on a two-run shot in the sixth that pulled Jefferson within 3-2.
Solon got into the act itself moments later with senior Emma Rickels. The senior first baseman capped a five-hit day for the Spartans by hitting the 10th homer of the day at Huston Field with a solo homer that doubled Solon’s sixth-inning lead.
“I don’t know what it is about all the home runs (Friday),” Rickels said after going 5-7 on day one of the Classic with four extra base hits and four RBI. “I think it may just be a case of hitters finally getting used to the pitching. I know that was my first home run this season. It definitely felt good off the bat.”
The drama and long drives of the late-afternoon marquee Eastern Iowa matchup was nothing compared to the game that kicked off the Classic. Cardinal and Clarke locked up in a wild back-and-forth affair that featured everything from pivotal late-inning errors and second chances to last-chance go-ahead hits and huge performances from a pair of sluggers.
In the end, it was Cardinal and catcher Lindsay Moore that would edge the 12th-ranked team in Class 3A. Despite four hits, including a massive three-run homer from Sarah Pate, and four runs batted in for the Indians top slugger, the Comets were able to pull off a stunning 12-11 win in eight innings thanks to six-RBI from Moore on three hits including a three-run homer of her own.
“I just felt good from the get-go,” Moore said. “I’m not the type of person to get nervous. I just did what I usually do. I just went up there and hit the ball.”
Moore also delivered the go-ahead two-run single in the top of the eighth to put Cardinal on top 11-9. It took a second chance thanks to a bobbled grounder by Clarke’s defense with two outs in the seventh to load the bases and clutch three-run triple down the right-field line by Lexi Fullenkamp to give Moore that opportunity.
“That was so special, especially on (Lexi’s) part because she was helping herself out on that hit,” Moore said.
Moore actually wouldn’t have needed to be the hero in extras as Fullenkamp’s bases-clearing bloop triple actually gave Cardinal a 9-8 lead in the seventh. A dropped fly ball in center opened up a chance for Clarke’s Libby Bemis to come through with a one-out game-tying RBI single as the Indians loaded the bases with two outs before pitcher Delaney Ridgway forced Ashley Gibbs to pop out to second to end an incredible seventh inning.
“We’ve said all along that our pitching and our defense is what’s going to carry us as far as we can go, because obviously our hitting can keep us with anyone in the state,” Harter said after winning the first extra-inning game in the Classic since 2008. “We can play defense when we want to. This was a great day to get us ready for what we’re going to face when we get to the third phase of our season.”
The nearly two-hour opener may have set the first day of the Classic back on time, but it also set up Cardinal for a winning season as the Comets picked up their 17th win with the upset of the South Central Conference champions. Cardinal played with even more confidence for most of the contest against Solon, using a solo homer by Jessie McElderry and a great defensive play to throw out a runner at home by right fielder Morgan Honomichl to take a 1-0 lead into the fourth inning on the third-ranked squad in 4A before a solo homer Aly Herdiska sparked the Spartans’ comeback.
Still, Harter feels Cardinal (17-15) will take nothing but positive momentum into their Class 2A regional first round matchup at home Tuesday at 7 p.m. against Van Buren from their efforts against two rated teams in Ottumwa.
“Van Buren wasn’t out there. We were. That’s going to pay dividends on Tuesday,” Harter said.
Like Harter, White agreed that the Ottumwa Classic was a perfect springboard to the postseason for his team. No. 3 (4A) Solon (37-2) returns to the Classic today to face No. 8 (5A) Ankeny at 12:15 p.m.
“We said the other day after our last game that the regular season is now officially over,” White said. “We view this tournament this weekend as the start of our postseason. The caliber of the competition we’ll face down here is just as good as any we’ll face on the road to state.”
One other team that got a big boost from the Classic Friday was Southeast Polk, which finished its resurgent regular season off in style by beating to ranked opponents. The Rams sent No. 12 (3A) Clarke (23-10) home winless in the Classic with a 3-0 shutout in the second game of the day before coming back late to black No. 7 (4A) Cedar Rapids Xavier 6-0 behind a Hannah Parker three-hitter.
“The girls have done a really nice job staying the course,” Southeast Polk head coach Tia Stiles said of the Rams, who started the regular season at 4-8 and wrapped up the regular season Friday at 25-14. “I think we all knew that if we just stayed the course as a team and let the process work, we’d be a pretty successful team by the end of the season.”
“I think Hannah and I are both pitching really well right now,” junior Cassady Knudsen said after striking out 10 Clarke batters in her five-hit shutout pitching performance for Polk. “When we’re both pitching this well, it’s going to be really hard to beat this team.”
While Southeast Polk is through with softball until opening Class 5A regional play next weekend against Des Moines Roosevelt, several other teams will just be starting their Ottumwa Classic runs today. Several area teams are in action, including matchups among local squads to kick off the day with North Mahaska facing Albia at 9 a.m. and Fairfield at 10:45.