OTTUMWA — Intimidating.
That might be the best way to describe the situation Ashton Brown was stepping into on Monday night. The Ottumwa High School junior stepped into the pitching circle having watched defending Class 4A state champion Des Moines Hoover collect hit after hit against Kacy Nickerson, the ace all-state pitcher of the Bulldogs.
Brown was asked to cool down one of the most dangerous lineups in the state, first to keep Ottumwa in the opening game of a marathon slugfest, then to prevent the Bulldogs from being swept in a key early-season CIML Metro conference doubleheader. Brown responded allowing just two runs and four hits over eight innings, earning her fourth win of the season in game two as eighth-ranked Ottumwa salvaged a split with No. 7 Hoover, winning 8-2 in game two late Monday night after a nine-inning 10-7 loss in game one to the Huskies.
"It gave me a lot of anxiety. I was pretty nervous coming in," Brown said. "When I was warming up during the first game (for the game two start) Misch (OHS assistant coach Matt Mischler) came out and told me I might be going in. It flustered me a little bit. I was a little scared, but I knew my team had me."
Nickerson helped out Brown in the very first inning, robbing Elyse Hiskey of a run-scoring hit with a running catch in deep right as the Huskies stranded the bases loaded. Morgan Greiner then gave Brown a lead to work with by hammering a two-run homer to right center, bringing in the first two of Ottumwa's four runs in the first.
"Hoover is a pretty good hitting team. Knowing that they won a state title last year, you know going in to face them that they're going to be good," Brown said. "Each game is a new game. It varies each time."
Brown was able to retire the best hitters in the Hoover line-up during the top of the ninth in game one after the Huskies had already opened a 10-7 lead with no outs. After walking the bases loaded, Brown forced Abby Nolte into a pop out, Hannah Poortinga into a fielders' choice groundout and struck out pinch hitter Adrianna Jarrett.
After getting out of another bases-loaded jam in the first inning of game two, Brown retired the next 12 Hoover batters. In the meantime, Ottumwa (7-1, 3-1 CIML Metro) finally solved Aris Tyler who had pitched over four scoreless innings of relief in game one.
Kaylee Bix, who went 0-5 in game one, quickly turned things around against Tyler in game two going 3-3 including an RBI single in the fourth that put Ottumwa up 7-0. Brown pitched around a pair of runs in the sixth, allowing Bix to record a pair of outs by fielding a pair of outs, before a solo home run by Heaton put the finishing touches on a key conference victory.
"Hoover has very good hitters. They have been for each of the past few years," Ottumwa head softball coach Frank Huston said. "We had chances to put more runs on the board in the later innings of game one. If we put a few more runs up, we don't have to go into extra innings."
Brown improved to 4-0 on the season, following up a four-inning one-hit shutout at the Oskaloosa Classic against Mount Vernon with a second straight stellar performance. The OHS hurler talked about the adjustments made throughout the offseason that has made the Bulldog junior a better pitcher, giving plenty of credit to her hall-of-fame head coach.
"Frank helped change my pitching style so I have more balance when I pitch," Brown said. "It's a lot easier now to not fall over and my pitches aren't going all over the place. I'm not as wild as I used to be. I'm a lot more accurate."
Ottumwa will continue pursuing a second straight Metro conference title next week, hosting Des Moines North next Monday in a varsity doubleheader. Next up for the Bulldogs is a doubleheader that will carry added emotional incentive for the Ottumwa players that came up one win short of state last year as OHS heads to No. 13 (5A) Indianola, sight of last year's 3-2 eight-inning win by the Indians that featured a walk-off home run by Parker Mathews and plenty of tear-filled OHS players stepping off the diamond.
"I don't know if it's a revenge thing or not. The biggest thing is that Indianola lost some key players from last year's team, but they've reloaded and are very good again this year," Huston said. "I'm sure the memories of that game up there last year will motivate our girls, but we have to try and play our game. We can't force things or overdo things.
"It's an early-season game, but sure, it means a lot. It'd be kind of sweet to win up there."
Des Moines Hoover 10, Ottumwa 7 (9)
DMH 001 024 003 — 10 17 4
OHS 031 030 000 — 7 10 1
Hoover battery — Abby Nolte (4 1/3IP, 9H, 7R, 2ER, 2K, 2BB) and Aris Tyler (W) (4 2/3IP, H, K, BB), Hannah Poortinga catching.
2B — Jade Sharp 2, Daija Bates, Karli Benson.
Hits — Jordan Redeker 3-4, Sharp 3-4, Poortinga 3-5, Bates 2-5, Benson 2-5, Meadow Lececq 1-2, Tyler 1-3, Taylor Floyd 1-4, Nolte 1-4.
RBI — Nolte 3, Poortinga 2, Sharp 2, Benson, Floyd, Tyler.
Runs — Redeker 3, Benson 2, Sharp 2, Bates, Lececq, Tyler.
Ottumwa battery — Kacy Nickerson (L, 3-1) (8IP, 17H, 10R, 10ER, 10K, 5BB, HBP) and Ashton Brown (IP, BB), Amber Shotts catching.
2B — Jillian Heaton.
HR — Hannah Huisinga.
Hits — Heaton 3-5, Shotts 2-4, Huisinga 2-5, Morgan Greiner 1-4, Abby Bowers 1-5, Nickerson 1-5.
RBI — Shotts 2, Heaton 2, Huisinga, Nickerson.
Runs — Bowers 2, Anne Guest 2, Huisinga, Delaney Stevens, Zoey Jones.
Ottumwa 8, Des Moines Hoover 2
DMH 000 002 0 — 2 5 4
OHS 400 301 x — 8 11 1
Hoover battery — Aris Tyler (L, 1-1) (3 2/3IP, 8H, 7R, 4ER, 6K, 2BB) and Elyse Hiskey (2 1/3IP, 3H, R, ER, K, BB), Hannah Poortinga catching.
2B — Adrianna Jarrett.
Hits — Abby Nolte 2-3, Jarrett 1-1, Tayler Floyd 1-3, Jade Sharp 1-4.
RBI — Nolte.
Runs — Floyd, Sharp.
Ottumwa battery — Ashton Brown (W, 4-0) (7IP, 5H, 2R, ER, 5K, 2BB), Zoey Jones catching.
2B — Kaylee Bix, Jillian Heaton.
HR — Morgan Greiner, Heaton.
Hits — Bix 3-4, Kacy Nickerson 2-3, Abby Bowers 2-4, Heaton 2-4, Hannah Huisinga 1-2, Greiner 1-4.
RBI — Heaton 2, Greiner 2, Bix.
Runs — Bix 2, Nickerson 2, Greiner, Heaton, Madelyn Houk, Huisinga.