ALBIA — Only once in four years of high school varsity softball has Jena Lawrence been kept out of the state softball tournament. That came in her first year as an eighth-grader pitcher, part of a young Albia squad that made a somewhat surprising run to the Class 3A regional finals before falling to top-ranked Davenport Assumption.
Monday night was the first time since that first year that Lawrence and her Lady Dee teammates were three outs away from being kept out of the state softball tournament. With the season on the line, Lawrence picked the perfect time to come up with her first walk-off home run completing a thrilling comeback with a three-run blast that allowed Albia to celebrate a third straight regional title with a 9-6 win in eight innings over North Polk.
Having competed in six state tournament games, four regional finals and the 2017 Class 3A state softball championship game, Lawrence had admittedly her most memorable moment on a diamond in her most recent game.
"It's the greatest feeling ever," Lawrence said. "In the past, it hasn't been as difficult as it was this year to qualify for state."
For Lawrence, that hasn't just meant Monday's come-from-behind extra-inning regional championship win over the Comets. After pitching all 101 postseason innings for the Lady Dees over her first three years, Lawrence has pitched just 13 of the 21 innings for Albia in this year's regional tournament handing the ball off in all three wins to Mackenna Jones who earned her first win in relief on Monday allowing just two runs on one hit over the final 4 1/3 innings.
"North Polk was a good hitting team and, unfortunately, I wasn't the pitcher for them," Lawrence said. "Mac was the pitcher for them. I'm glad she stepped up. I'm glad we stepped up. I'm glad this could be a team win."
It may not have been the road some expected Albia to travel this season, but it has led to the same destination as the past three years with the Lady Dees headed to state. The bats have been consistent for Albia, producing statewide top-20 marks in batting average (.379) and slugging (.554).
In the postseason, the Lady Dees have come up with big hits in the biggest spots. In all three regional wins, Albia has had a big inning during a pivotal point of each game scoring five times in the first inning to counter an opening run from Saydel in the regional quarterfinals, scoring four runs with three coming home on a homer by Jones to snap a 1-1 tie against Clarke in the regional semifinals and using a pair of home runs from Alex Beard and Abbey Griffin to begin a rally after falling behind 4-0 against North Polk last Monday.
Beard, who leads Albia with a .550 batting average and eight home runs after earning a spot on the 2018 Class 3A all-tournament team last year, talked about the unity of the Lady Dees this season. Despite trailing North Polk 6-4 entering the seventh inning, that team bond helped motivate Albia players to come through with the two runs needed to extend the game and the season.
"We kind of initiated a thing we call dugout buddies when the regional tournament started," Beard said. "At first, some of us kind of thought it would be dumb, but it's actually been pretty awesome. It's kept our dugout more alive and energetic.
"Our dugout has helped us so much when we're at bat. It really helped us (against North Polk) calm down when we were feeling pretty stressed."
Albia (27-4) will need their bats to continue producing runs on Monday night in the Class 3A state quarterfinal matchup with Columbus Catholic (35-4) in what could prove to be another postseason thriller for the Lady Dees. The Sailors lead Class 3A with 314 RBI, 80 doubles, 422 hits and 343 runs scored.
Both Albia and Columbus will returning to state for the third straight year. The Lady Dees, however, have had more success going 2-0 in first round games while the Sailors have gone 0-2 including a 7-2 loss in the 2017 2A state quarterfinals to Albia's South Central Conference rival, Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont.
"You just have to have full confidence in your teammates that they'll go out there and do their jobs," Albia junior Abbey Griffin said. "You just have to pray and believe things are going to go your way."
2019 IOWA HIGH SCHOOL STATE SOFTBALL TOURNAMENT
At Harlan Rogers Sports Complex
Class 3A quarterfinals
Albia (27-4) vs. Columbus Catholic (35-4), 7:30 p.m. (Iowa Central Field) (96.7 FM KIIC)