OTTUMWA — These weren't your classic regional championship duels on the diamond.
One run here and one run there wasn't going to be enough for either the Albia Lady Dees or Ottumwa Bulldogs to qualify for the Iowa High School state softball tournament.
No, the past 48 hours required both area teams to continue swinging and slugging away as the two teams engaged in two epic extra-inning regional finals. The two teams combined to allow North Polk and Muscatine to score 15 runs in 17 innings, a total that would leave most teams only dreaming of qualifying for state.
Instead, the Lady Dees and Bulldogs had the responses both in the field and at the plate. One night after a three-run home run with two outs by Jena Lawrence clinched a 9-6 win in eight innings over North Polk in the 3A, Region 8 finals, Ottumwa used a pair of clutch two-out extra inning hits and a key double play in the field to earn a 12-9 win in nine innings over Muscatine in a 5A, Region 7 final that was even wilder.
"It was a quite a battle, but I'm so proud of my team for not getting down at any point," said Ottumwa junior pitcher Kacy Nickerson after clinching the regional title, fielding a hard-hit grounder from Kaylie Reynolds before throwing to Jillian Heaton for the 27th and final out record by the Bulldog defense. "We both wanted this so bad. We both came to fight. It was relentess softball and it all came down to who wanted it more. This is something we've been working for since last year."
Albia and Ottumwa both had the common motivation of fighting for a trip to the state softball tournament. While the Lady Dees were seeking to extend its string of success by qualifying for a third straight state tournament, the Bulldogs were looking to get over the hump trying to avoid being eliminated in the regional finals on the road for the third straight year.
"We really tried our best over the past two years. We just couldn't quite make it," Nickerson said. "Our motivation coming into the night was to not let it happen again. We're going to fight and we're going to keep pushing."
Both Albia and Ottumwa had to keep pushing deep into regulation. On Monday, the Lady Dees were in unfamiliar territory trailing by four runs at home in the postseason before home runs by Alex Beard and Abbey Griffin in the third inning kicked off the first of two regulation rallies for Albia.
"I was definitely not prepared for the ups and downs we were going to experience in that game," Griffin said. "All we could do was go out there and do what we've been taught. Nothing else mattered except for the moments we were focused on."
Albia caught North Polk briefly at 4-4 before a two-run home run by Bailey Hougham lifted the Comets to a 6-4 lead in the sixth. That lead remained in tact as the Lady Dees prepared for what could have been the final inning of the season. The fifth-ranked team in Class 3A turned to divine intervention in the dugout before embarking on the most important at-bats of the summer.
"I actually did say a little prayer right there. I was really stressed out and I needed to calm down," Beard said. "All I was asking for us to play our game, whether that meant we came out with a victory or not."
McKenna Ross drew a lead off walk, stole second and scored on Beard's RBI hit to left. After Lawrence moved courtesy runner Allison Major into scoring position with a single, the Comets attempt to turn a double play off a ground ball by Mackenna Jones turned into a throwing error, allowing Major to score the tying run.
"I feel like two runs in this kind of a game is a lot when it's a high-stress game like this," Beard said. "Coming down to the final inning, I was pretty stressed out, but I knew we could do it if we put our minds to it. I wasn't stressed that we could score twice. I was just stressed because I want to get to Fort Dodge so bad."
Two runs didn't seem like a lot 24 hours later at Kent-Stein Park, where Ottumwa and Muscatine traded the lead and momentum early and often. Hannah Huisinga's solo home run in the second matched an opening-inning run by the Muskies, scored on throwing error, before two Muscatine errors and one Ottumwa fielding error allowed both teams to score go-ahead runs in the third inning.
With senior leader Morgan Greiner watching on from just outside the dugout, the Bulldogs had one of their best nights at the plate. Ottumwa stung 20-win Muscatine starting pitcher Carrie Nelson with five consecutive hits in the fourth, opening a 5-3 lead on RBI hits from Kaylee Bix, Jillian Heaton and Huisinga.
"This game was honestly crazy," said Huisinga after collecting four hits, four RBI and three runs scored in the regional championship win. "Every inning, we didn't know what to expect, but we were going to take on whatever came our way."
Muscatine answered with four straight hits in the fifth inning, tying the game at 7-7 on a two-run home run by Kaylie Reynolds. The game stayed tied until the bottom of the seventh, leaving Ottumwa in the position of potentially losing a spot at state on a walk-off hit one year after a Parker Mathews eighth-inning home run lifted Indianola over the Bulldogs, 3-2, in last year's 5A regional finals.
"Last year, losing to Indianola really showed us what it's about," Huisiniga said. "It sucked. It really sucked, to be honest. Being on this side feels really good. We showed what we're capable of doing."
Nickerson pitched around a one-out double by Haley Jarrett in the bottom of the seventh, stranding Muscatine's potential winning run at second. Nickerson's best play would not come on a pitch, but would come inning later after three straight Muscatine hits answered a two-run rally by the Bulldogs to even the score at 9-9.
Nikole Molina countered a go-ahead RBI hit by Abby Bowers in the top of the eighth with a double to center that tied the game at 9-9. Molina looked to reach third with no outs on the play, only for Nickerson to snag the relay throw from Huisinga and fire to Josie Lemonds for the first of three straight outs by the Muskies.
"When I got that ball, all I focused on was making that throw to Josie. I needed to make that throw if we were going to win," Nickerson said. "I was so scared, but I pushed through it."
One night earlier, it appeared North Polk would ride a great defensive stand to an extra inning win as the Lady Dees could not push the winning run across home plate despite loading the bases with no outs. Abigail Martin struck out and Rylee Leshen grounded into a double play, forcing extra innings.
Responding in the pitching circle was Mackenna Jones, who struck out the side in the eighth after issuing a lead-off walk to Carolyn Steffen. Jones would secure her biggest varsity pitching win yet, allowing just the one hit (Hougham's two-run homer) and three walks over the final 4 1/3 innings for the Lady Dees.
"It was really stressful because it was the biggest game I've ever played in," Jones said. "I feel like it's quite an accomplishment. I just wanted to do it for my team. I knew how much everyone wanted it. I shook off that home run and did what I normally do."
Both Albia and Ottumwa needed two-out extra-inning hits to advance to state. For Albia, Ross started the winning rally with a two-out single to left before reaching second on an error. After an intentional walk to Beard, Lawrence delivered the final blow with a three-run homer that initially looked to the Albia junior like an inning-ending flyout.
"I didn't go up there thinking that I was going to hit a walk-off home run. I just wanted to get a hit for my team," Lawrence said. "She (North Polk pitcher Chloe Dougherty) was pitching us outside the entire game. My thought going up was I was going to take the first outside pitch I see the other way. I swung hard to get a good hit and I thought it was going to be caught. I thought we were going to have to go out on defense one more time, until I saw their right fielder go back to the fence and saw it go over.
"At that moment, I didn't hear anything. I didn't see anything. I was in shock. I was running. I was screaming. I couldn't hear anything until I got around third base and saw my teammates. It's the greatest feeling ever."
One night later, it would take until the ninth inning for Ottumwa to feel the same way. Like Albia, the Bulldogs went ahead on a pair of two-out hits as Heaton delivered a tiebreaking single to center before Huisinga drove a two-out pitch down the right field line for a two-run double, giving Ottumwa a three-run lead.
Unlike Albia, it was a defensive play that helped clinch a trip to Fort Dodge. After a lead-off single by Jarrett, Kaylynn Salyars hit a sharp grounder up the middle that OHS shortstop Kaylee Bix fielded cleanly before stepping on second base and firing to first for a huge double play.
"That was the moment," Huisinga said. "Kaylee's double play. That's when I knew we were going to state."