OTTUMWA — The Ottumwa Bulldogs were not focused on helping their legendary head coach make state tournament history on Tuesday.
The Bulldogs were just focused on getting their coach back to state for the first time in six years. In doing so, Ottumwa's 12-9 win over Muscatine in the Class 5A, Region 7 finals gave Frank Huston a piece of state tournament history, matching Larry Niemeyer as the only coaches to lead a softball team to state 28 times.
Huston and the Bulldogs are on the threshold of another milestone, sitting just two wins away as a program from earning 1,700 victories. To get to that mark this summer, Ottumwa will have to upset the top-ranked team in the state as ninth-ranked OHS battles No. 1 Waukee Tuesday in the state quarterfinals.
"The mindset going into the state tournament is that you're in it to win it. If you're in it to win it and you have to beat the best team to win the thing, you're probably better off playing them first," Huston said. "Having said that, we have to go out there and play."
Ottumwa players added their piece to the successful history of the program led by Huston for 47 successful seasons, covering the banner on the Huston Field press box that currently reads 27 state tournament appearances with the number 8 on a piece of paper after clinching trip No. 28 on Tuesday. Becoming only the second coach to ever make that many trips to state is humbling for Huston, who earned his 1,853rd win in the nine-inning triumph at Muscatine.
"You see the number. It's a testament to the great players and the total strength of the program that has developed here," Huston said. "That success includes all the support from the assistant coaches to the fans and volunteers. Everyone that has helped out and has been a part of this program goes into the success we have each season.
"Of course, to get to that point, you have to stay in this for a lot of years."
Many of the current Ottumwa players had plenty of motivation to make it to state this year, having lost in the regional finals each of the previous two seasons including an eight-inning loss to Indianola last summer. Getting their head coach back to Fort Dodge also played a part in the Bulldogs achieving a regional championship, going 33-7 along the way while staying ranked in the top 10 throughout the course of the season.
"I know Frank really wanted us to get to state. I think we're just as excited that we could get him back to state at least one more time," junior Jillian Heaton said. "I know he's getting down to his final few years coaching. We were excited to do this both for us and for him.
"It motivated me a lot to get Frank back to state. I know how much he loves softball," junior Kaylee Bix added. "Going back to state for him once more is really heartwarming."
Waukee has already proven to be a formidable foe for the Bulldogs in the postseason, having earned a 4-0 win two years ago in the 5A regional finals over OHS. Like that Waukee team, this year's Warrior squad is 38-3 and ranked No. 1 heading into state. That year's Ottumwa squad was ranked 11th in the final statewide 5A poll, just two spots behind the final ranking of the 2019 Bulldogs.
That Ottumwa team, however, was 26-15. This Ottumwa team has seven more wins facing state tournament qualifiers this year like Indianola, Johnston, Davenport Assumption and Mount Vernon. It also had more experience with six players back from that 2017 squad that played against Waukee including Kacy Nickerson, Ottumwa's 17-game winning pitcher who started at first base two years ago and came on to pitch the final two innings against the Warriors, allowing one unearned run on two hits.
"Waukee is still a very aggressive team," Nickerson said. "Over the past two years, I definitely feel like I've gotten better both with my speed and my movement. It'll be interesting to see how that matches up with their batters this time around.
"I'm not sure how much those kids even remember that game two years ago," Huston added. "This hasn't been an easy road for us to get back to state. We've had some unexpected bumps to get over, but we've made it. Now, we've just got to show up and win."
2019 IOWA HIGH SCHOOL STATE SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT
At Harlan Rogers Sports Complex
Class 5A quarterfinals
Ottumwa (33-7) vs. Waukee (38-3), 5 p.m. (Kruger Seeds Field) (96.7 KIIC FM)