OTTUMWA — When it comes to recording outs between Jena Lawrence and Alex Beard, the ball usually winds up in Beard's glove behind the plate.
Friday afternoon, it was Beard throwing strikes to Lawrence that resulted in key outs for seventh-ranked (3A) Albia. Lawrence tagged out Taylor Ryan on a steal attempt in the third inning and caught Sarah Heick trying to advance to third to end the sixth as Albia bounced back from a 4-3 loss in the opening game of the 45th Ottumwa Classic to No. 15 (5A) Southeast Polk with a 4-3 win over No. 9 (3A) Solon.
"This is my first year playing third base. In previous years, I've been pitching practically every game," Lawrence said. "That was probably the most activity I've seen at third. We haven't seen a lot of teams that like to play small ball. (Solon) put some stuff down and tested us, but I liked it. It's fun making plays at different positions on the field."
Albia opened the day hoping to carry an 18-game winning streak into the regional tournament, bringing a 16-game streak into the Classic. The Lady Dees appeared well on their way to a 17th straight win after jumping out to a 3-0 lead against Southeast Polk after two innings.
"I really wanted to win that game," Lawrence said. "I thought we had it in the bag."
Instead, the bag unraveled as the Lady Dees committed five errors leading to four unearned runs. The Rams rallied in the sixth, scoring three times with the help of two more errors including a bobbled grounder with two outs that Nikki Griggs to cross home plate with the eventual winning run. Alex Beard's hard line out to short in the seventh officially sealed Albia's first loss since a 6-5 setback to Newton at the Oskaloosa Classic back on June 1.
"I'll never say that I'm fine with us losing, but I'm okay with us taking that loss instead of taking one later this week," Beard said. "I wasn't even thinking about the streak coming into the day. I think winning is just something that is always on our mind. We don't go into a game thinking we're going to lose. We go into every game thinking that we're going to win.
"It's kind of depressing when we come off the field on the short end of the score, but we learn from it. I'm going to say it's okay if we learned something going into the postseason."
Beard continued to swing a hot bat on Saturday, following up a three-hit effort against Southeast Polk with a third run-scoring hit (all bringing in Kennedy Schroeder) in the opening inning against Solon. The Albia junior catcher finished the day going 4-6 to move into the top 10 in the state with a .570 batting average (ninth-best overall).
Besides producing at the plate, Beard showed off her improved defensive skills gunning a strike to Lawrence at third to catch Ryan trying to swipe third base in the third inning against Solon with Albia leading at the time 2-1. Both her offensive and defensive strides have opened many doors of opportunity for Beard to pursue her dream of playing college softball starting with the 2020-21 season.
"I feel like I'm more confident at hitting than I am at catching, but I work on that with Jena a lot," Beard said. "It's not just that I'm trying to improve my statistics. I'm want to be successful in the future. I want to play college softball and I'm really working at getting that offer to come along."
Lawrence, who also has future plans of playing softball on the collegiate level, talked about her longtime teammate and catcher.
"I don't want to say how good she's become because she's always been good," Lawrence said of Beard. "Every year, we just progress more and more. It's all about getting better at the little things. It doesn't even have to be a dramatic improvement, but if we can make that one-percent improvement in something year after year, you make yourself better and better."
Southeast Polk (21-14) made the most of their return to Huston Field just 15 days after being swept by Ottumwa in a varsity doubleheader. The Rams followed up the comeback win over Albia (23-4) with an 11-5 win over Solon (21-15), scoring five times in the second inning and putting the game away in the fifth on a bases-clearing double by Sydney Potter.
"There are some things that are gelling for us right now," Southeast Polk head softball coach Tia Stiles said. "Ottumwa's an awesome team. We knew that when we came down here. We were hoping to be a little more competitive in those games, but these wins were big for us. We beat two really solid teams and we continue to build confidence as we wrap up our regular season."
Albia wraps up the regular season Monday against No. 13 (1A) Twin Cedars. The Lady Dees host Saydel to open Class 3A regional tournament play on Wednesday at 7 p.m.