FORT DODGE — It took 29 years for the Roland-Story Norsemen to return to the state softball tournament.
Amber Doyle made sure her team took full advantage of the opportunity. The former Ottumwa softball state championship player nearly earned a championship in her first state tournament as a head coach, guiding Roland-Story to the Class 3A finals on Friday.
In the end, a four-run fourth-inning rally lifted Davenport Assumption to a successful defense of the 3A state softball crown. The Knights erased a 2-0 deficit, winning 4-2 as the Norsemen finished with the tying run swinging the bat in the top of the seventh.
After Juliann Clark opened the final inning with a single, Susie Weaver bunted Clark to second base before Madison Friest sent a deep fly ball to left that curved foul with home run distance. Friest would be robbed of a hit by Assumption shortstop Nicole Yoder before Roland-Story senior Jenna Clark lined out to right, ending the Norsemen bid for the program's eighth overall state softball title.
"It just doesn't feel like it's done yet. We've been preparing for this all week. We've driven up here, played a game. Driven up again and played another game," Doyle said. "My body still feels like we're going to drive right back up here tomorrow and play another game. I'm sure the disappointment will hit me at some point, but it's hard to be too disappointed when your team comes out and plays for the state championship the way our kids did."
Roland-Story showed no fear against the defending state champions from Assumption, scoring the very first run of the 3A final in the very first inning while stranding two runners in scoring position. Riley Holmgren, who retired the first nine Assumption hitters in the pitching circle, added an RBI hit in the second inning to put the Norsemen up 2-0.
"We came in and gave Assumption a great game," Doyle said. "That's all we can do. You can't be more than you are. You have to come up here and be the best version of yourself. I think that's what our girls were this entire tournament."
After going without a base runner for the first three innings, Assumption came to life aided by a key dropped pop up that was ruled fair despite falling in foul territory. The Knights would take the lead on a go-ahead two-run double by Carlie Sammon before scoring on a squeeze bunt by Yoder to go up 4-2.
When the final out was recorded, the jam-packed stands behind the Roland-Story dugout stood and applauded the Norsemen on its most successful of Doyle's nine seasons at the helm. The ovation continued as the players and coaches, including Doyle, exited the Buena Vista Diamond for the final time in the 2018 state tournament.
"The really cool thing is that this team is such a team-oriented group," Doyle said. "Everyone on this team knew there was a role to play at a certain time. Maybe it's my job to take a walk, maybe it's my job to get a big hit. Maybe it's my job to cheer. I think that kind of thing is something that really excited the entire community of Roland-Story. Who doesn't what to cheer for a team like that?"
Doyle talked about some of the comparisons to the current group of players that made up Roland-Story and the teams in Ottumwa Doyle was a part of on the way to earning a place in the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union Hall-of-Fame.
"Ottumwa has always had a great support system and so does Roland-Story," Doyle said. "You can't ask for anything better than being a part of a group that makes a run to the state championship game. To be a part of the final day of the softball season playing for a state title is all you ask for when you're a part of this game."
Besides trying to make a return trip to the state softball tournament, Roland-Story plans on making a trip back to the 45th edition of the Ottumwa Softball Classic. The Norsemen scored a pair of impressive regular season wins earlier this season in Wapello County, beating 3A state qualifier Albia 2-1 and 5A regional finalist Ottumwa 4-3 in nine innings.
"I have a feeling that (Ottumwa head softball coach) Frank (Huston) still has plenty to teach me," Doyle said. "I think he'll be happy for me, but I don't think he'll let me get too big for my britches."
Scott Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CourierScott.