OTTUMWA — After two straight years of losing a regional final on the road, all the Ottumwa softball team wants this season is a chance to play for a state tournament berth at home.
The Bulldogs have that opportunity, provided Ottumwa continues to pick up wins and stay ahead of two top-notch programs in the statewide rankings. Ottumwa, currently ranked eighth in Class 5A, was named the top seed in Region 7 joining the Albia Lady Dees in Class 3A, Region 8 as two area teams that can earn the opportunity to play at home in the regional finals.
Ottumwa's road to state will officially begin at Huston Field on Saturday, July 13. The Bulldogs will host either Iowa City West or Davenport North in a 5A regional semifinal at 7 p.m.
"We've gotten through the first phase of our season. We took care of business and earned ourselves a top seed in a region," Ottumwa head softball coach Frank Huston said. "That gives us a great chance to have home field advantage throughout the postseason. Now, the second phase of the season is continue to get better with 10 games left. Even through we have strong competition coming up, we want to pick up our game."
Ottumwa, 24-4 on the season, will have plenty to play for as the regular season comes to a close. Not only will the Bulldogs want to continue to build momentum heading into the postseason, but having ninth-ranked Muscatine as the current second seed puts an added emphasis on winning and staying inside the top eight when the final Class 5A rankings come out in two weeks.
Even though Ottumwa is currently seeded and ranked ahead of Muscatine, the final determination for home field in a regional final is based on where the two teams are ranked in the final poll. Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont discovered this two years ago after initially being seeded ahead of Pella Christian with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The Eagles moved ahead of EBF in the final rankings and ultimately hosted the Rockets in a 2A regional final.
"We thought we had home field that year throughout the postseason," EBF head softball coach Tony Fenton said. "We didn't realize we had to go to Pella until the regional tournament started."
Of course, Muscatine will have to win at Kent Stein Park on July 13 over Cedar Rapids Jefferson, who dropped out of the rankings last week. The J-Hawks will be playing at Huston Field on July 6 during the final day of the Ottumwa Classic.
"The girls have to be happy with what they've done so far, but we're experienced enough to know that nothing is guaranteed at this point," Huston said. "Just because you can play on your home field doesn't ensure you of moving forward. Cedar Rapids Jefferson is a team with a lot of history in terms of making the state tournament. So is Muscatine. The teams are right up there, but so are we."
Albia remained seventh in this week's Class 3A rankings, riding a current 12-game winning streak. The Lady Dees open at home against Saydel on July 10 and, with a win, would host either Creston or Clarke in the regional semifinals on July 12.
The Lady Dees have qualified for the last two state tournaments, winning a regional final at Solon in 2017 and a regional final at home over Williamsburg last summer. Four unranked teams (North Polk, Des Moines Christian, Shenandoah and Red Oak) make up the bottom half of Albia's bracket, giving the Lady Dees a high probability to host a regional final on July 15 should Albia win its first two postseason games.
"I definitely think we've gotten our swagger back," Albia junior catcher Alex Beard said. "We really started to focus on certain pitches as hitters that have helped us improve as a team. We're working better as a team and we've got a lot more confidence than we had at the beginning of the season. I think we can go far this year."
In 3A, Region 1, the Davis County Mustangs open at No. 14 West Burlington on July 10 with the winner heading to No. 10 Camanche, who opens with Tipton, on July 12. Top-ranked and defending 3A state champion Davenport Assumption, Columbus, Monticello and Center Point-Urbana are on the other side of the bracket.
The EBF Rockets will open play in Class 3A, Region 3 hosting Chariton on July 10 with the winner traveling to Williamsburg to face either 11th-ranked Raiders or South Tama two days later. Second-ranked Louisa-Muscatine, last year's 2A state champion, joins Central Lee, Centerville and PCM on the other side of the bracket.
"We were glad to get a home game. We weren't sure we'd even get that," Fenton said. "We can play with anyone in that bracket. It's just a matter of playing the way we're capable of playing each and every night. If we play like that, we've got a chance and that's all we ask for."
The postseason begins on Monday, July 8 with Pekin hosting Danville in an opening round game out of Class 2A, Region 8. The winner heads to seventh-ranked Wilton on July 10, the same night that Cardinal travels to Wapello and Van Buren heads to Highland. Eighth-ranked Iowa City Regina would host Cardinal on July 12 should the Comets win at Wapello while the winners at Wilton and Highland meet in Wilton in the other 2A, Region 8 semifinal on July 12.
"We had a good game with Wapello earlier this season that didn't quite go our way. We just didn't quite got a few timely hits that would have made the difference," Cardinal head softball coach Sabrina Morrison said. "The girls are used to playing every single day. I feel like we're better equipped to play in the postseason whether home or away."