KALONA — Four times this year, the Danville softball team has been within three outs of clinching a win over the Van Buren Warriors.
Finally, on Saturday, the Bears were able to close out the Warriors to secure a victory. Not, however, without another late inning.
Danville clinched the IMS tournament title with a 9-4 win over Van Buren, holding on after the Warriors scored twice and put two runners on base. Ava Smith finally clinched the win, forcing Brooklyn Cormier and Kalyn Tuttle to ground out. Prior to Saturday, Van Buren had rallied to erase deficits three times in the last at-bats of two previous meetings this season against Danville. The Warriors scored five times in the seventh inning of the season opener to beat Danville, 11-7.
That game, and Saturday's contest, pale in comparison to one of the all-time epic encounters that happened last Thursday. Van Buren and Danville met in the IMS tournament title game on Saturday just 48 hours after battling for 18 innings and four-and-a-half hours as Van Buren twice erased extra-inning deficits, winning 6-5 on a walk-off sacrifice fly by eighth-grader Ally Campbell.
"I made sure I had enough on it to get it out of the infield and get her (Lexi Jirak) in from third base," Campbell said. "There were a lot of nerves, though. It's pretty tiring and stressful that much softball."
Campbell and Chelsey Huff will each be linked for the key roles both played in one of the longest games in the history of Van Buren softball. Huff, a sophomore, pitched the first nine innings of Thursday's marathon before Campbell took over to pitch the final nine innings, earning her sixth pitching win of the season.
That win, and the eventual game-winning sacrifice fly, wouldn't have happened without Huff's heroics at the plate. Down 4-3 in bottom of the 16th inning, Huff led off and belted a game tying home run that extended the marathon.
"It was just another at-bat for me. I wasn't trying to put any extra pressure on myself, but once it got to a 3-1 count, my thought was that it had to be a perfect pitch for my to swing at it," Huff said.
The home run, however, was not hit on a perfect pitch. Huff golfed a low pitch over the fence to tie the score at 4-4.
"I chewed her out a bit," Van Buren head coach Randy Smith joked. "Chelsey, what are you doing? We need a runner on base to lead off the inning. When she crossed the plate, she came up to me and told me it was a good thing she swung at a pitch in the dirt."
Huff would erase Danville's second one-run extra-inning lead of Thursday's contest, drilling an RBI single in the bottom of the 18th to score Isabel Manning to tie the score at 5-5.
"I was kind of worried this might end up meaning we're going to have to play 20 innings now," Huff said.
"With nobody out and runners at first and third when she came up, there was no doubt in my mind she was going to make contact with the softball," Smith added. "In fact, I knew with Lexi at first that if had her steal second, they were going to walk Chelsey. I even told Lexi that, if there's a pass ball, I don't even want you to take second. I wanted her to stay because I wanted that bat in Chelsey's hand. I want our best hitter at the plate. All she had to do was hit it and we're back in a position to win."
After playing wrapping up Thursday's game 15 minutes shy of midnight, the two teams were back in action Saturday afternoon shortly before 4 p.m. Danville's win over IMS and Van Buren's 7-2 win over Columbus set up the immediate rematch of the Southeast Iowa Superconference south division epic, leading to a fun conversation at the plate between captains.
"I think the girls said if we're tied this time after seven innings, maybe we just flip a coin for it," Smith said. "We kind of thought coming into the day that we'd see them again. It's a great rivalry we have with Danville in all sports. This is something we'll always get to share between us."
For Van Buren, Saturday's split leaves the Warriors with a record of 13-10. It's quite a turnaround for Smith's squad one season after going 7-18 with five losses coming by a single run.
"To see games like the ones we've played against Danville go our way shows how much of a corner we've already turned as a program," Smith said. "It seems like games like the one we played against Danville on Thursday always seemed to go against us last year. Now, we're finding ways to win. Our goal was to have a winning season and we're right on the verge of making that happen."