OTTUMWA — On one hand, the Ottumwa softball team can celebrate winning a conference title for a third consecutive season.
On the other hand, the Bulldogs were hoping by the end of Thursday night to be the only team leaving Huston Field with a claim to the CIML Metro title.
C.J. Banner bounced back after being roughed up eight nights earlier by Ottumwa, allowing five runs in the fifth inning of a 7-2 victory for the Bulldogs one week earlier that helped put OHS in position to play for the outright Metro title on Thursday. Banner shut out the Bulldogs for the first time this season, scattering six hits while pitching out of potential danger in the fourth and sixth innings as No. 14 (5A) East earned a 3-0 win over No. 9 (5A) Ottumwa, matching the Bulldogs with a final 16-4 conference record.
"It's been at least seven years since we even won a piece of a conference title," said Banner, who will call Ottumwa her home starting this fall as a member of the Indian Hills Community College softball program. "I'm so grateful for the people I have behind me. They support me so much. It's a fun way to end one last ride with this team."
Both East (27-13) and Ottumwa (31-7) will begin traveling down the Class 5A postseason road Saturday in the regional semifinals. East will open with Ankeny while Ottumwa will host Davenport West, a 3-1 winner on Thursday over Iowa City West.
"Our first goal is always to qualify for the state tournament," Ottumwa head softball coach Frank Huston said. "If you can win a conference championship in the process, great.
"However, we don't want to share anything with East."
The Scarlets, however, made winning the outright conference title tougher for Ottumwa right away on Thursday scoring three runs on four hits in the first inning off Bulldog junior pitcher Kacy Nickerson. Josie Lucas and Marisa Anderson singled to open the game before Nickerson recorded the first of her 10 strikeouts, moving Nickerson over 600 career strikeouts in the process.
After setting down Banner, however, Nickerson allowed run-scoring hits to Keiana Giboo and Nevaeh Moon. East led 3-0 and never looked back.
"I didn't think my pitches were working as well early in the game," Nickerson said. "I did adjust as the game went along, but (East) got some pretty good hits off me."
Nickerson prevented East from adding any more runs after the first inning. Ottumwa brought the tying run to the plate in both the fourth and sixth innings after back-to-back singles in both instances by Jillian Heaton and Hannah Huisinga.
Each time, Banner responded forcing Abby Bowers into a pair of ground outs back to the pitching circle before retiring Zoey Jones for the final out. Jones flew out to left to end the fourth inning threat and hit a sharp grounder that was snagged by Scarlet third baseman Madi Inman to wind up the sixth. Ottumwa went down in order in the seventh to end the contest and the regular season.
"Having the mentality that I needed to get everything down and have fun playing the game helped me a lot in this game," Banner said. "I learned from my mistakes from last week. I worked on correcting those mistakes."
Heaton was Ottumwa's most productive hitter on Thursday, going 3-3 in the regular-season finale for the Bulldogs. It was a bittersweet day for Ottumwa on and off the field with senior third baseman Morgan Greiner undergoing surgery earlier in the day in Des Moines to repair her torn meniscus and ACL suffered this past weekend in a loss to Johnston.
"We all know we can still do this (qualify for state), but Morgan's been such a leader for us," Heaton said. "Missing that little part of that is different, but we've still got the talent. Nights like these are the nights that Morgan made such a difference. She's always so positive and, even if she had just been here for moral support, it might have made a difference."
Greiner returned home Thursday to recover from her surgery. Whether the Ottumwa senior can return to Huston Field Saturday to support her teammates as the Bulldogs begin the postseason is still up in the air.
"That's a pretty serious surgery. I don't know and don't want to speculate on what the doctor's orders are," Huston said. "I won't downplay the fact that Morgan is the unofficial captain of this team on and off the field. Leaving her abilities on the field out of it, you miss that intangible when she's not here.
"Even if Morgan can't play, having her here just to cheer us on would make a huge difference," Heaton added. "She has confidence in us to get this done. Having that support there, even if she can't be on the field with us, helps us a lot."