JUCO softball: IHCC softball opens regional play with sweep

Indian Hills head softball coach Lindsay Diehl (right) talks with IHCC freshman pitcher Alexis Groet (left) during the opening Iowa Community College Athletic Conference junior college softball game against Southeastern on Tuesday afternoon at Romalynn "R.L." Hellyer Field in Ottumwa.

OTTUMWA — Lindsay Diehl won 154 games, four South Central Conference championships and the 2014 state softball championship of Class 3A over seven years as head coach at Clarke High School in Osceola.

Year eight easily could have happened this summer. Diehl could easily have been back in the dugout coaching the Indians during another successful season having finished just one win shy of qualifying for the state tournament last year.

It's been quite a whirlwind for Diehl, who one day after losing to Atlantic last July in the 3A regional finals was named the new head coach of Indian Hills Community College. Along the way, Diehl had put together a team capable of meeting the high standards as a program that Diehl herself had been a part of as a member of two national tournament teams for the Warriors in 2001 and 2002.

Now, 11 months after talking herself into taking on a new challenge, Diehl is embarking on her first full offseason with a team that got better and better as the 2019 campaign unfolded. Once 3-11, Indian Hills finished 42-18 with a record-setting year that ended as one of the last eight teams left competing in the NJCAA national tournament.

"Ever since we finished the season, all I've done is think about the growth that our team had and how cool it was to sit in the driver's seat watching them develop into the team we became," Diehl said. "I can remember trying to convince the girls about what the Indian Hills softball tradition truly was and what it means to wear that jersey living up to the reputation of the program.

"They finally started believing in what I was saying. They finally decided they wanted to leave their own mark on what Indian Hills softball was to them. Plenty of them did that by putting their names in the program's record book, going on a winning streak and putting up some of the numbers they put up."

Indian Hills ended the season on a high note, winning 25 of the final 27 games this season including 24 straight wins that carried the Warriors into the national tournament. The 2019 Warriors became just the second team in program history to hit over 100 home runs, finishing at 102 with the final nine coming in four national tournament games.

Freshmen teammates Brooke Snider, Alexis Groet and Chloe Olson were named NJCAA All-Americans. Snider and Olson joined fellow Warrior freshman Macy Harrington in becoming the only players in program history to hit 20 or more home runs in a single season with Snider, the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference player of the year, finishing with a program-record 27 round-trippers. Groet finished with 23 wins in the pitching circle and another single-season program best 301 strikeouts, earning ICCAC pitcher of the year honors and a spot with Snider on the NJCAA All-American second team.

"It's just remarkable," Diehl said. "Texas feels like it was another season now."

Texas is where the Diehl's first season as IHCC head softball coach began. The Warriors struggled out of the gate with 11 losses on the season-opening trip through the Lone Star state and continued to struggle to achieve consistency back in the midwest, disappointingly splitting home doubleheaders with NIACC and Iowa Lakes to head into the final week of March with a 9-14 record.

Diehl, however, refused to let her team settle on being just good enough to win every other game. When Warrior players started to drop their heads, and drop their level of play, their new head coach was right there encouraging them to pick both back up.

"One thing I tell the girls all the time is that I don't go away," Diehl said. "Everyone kept telling me to just ride this out and wait until you get your recruits in here. I remember having that conversation with (Indian Hills athletic director) Brett (Monaghan) that I didn't want to wait. I want to win right now."

Just a few days after splitting at home with Iowa Lakes, Indian Hills began to win and win often. The Warriors scored a surprising sweep at Kirkwood, who would compete in the NJCAA Division II national tournament, and never looked back winning eight straight games before suffering a pair of losses at Iowa Western. At 17-16, IHCC took off winning every game over the next 44 days including a sweep of the Reivers in Ottumwa, helping clinch the regular-season ICCAC title, three wins in Marshalltown to win the ICCAC tournament and two wins at home over Crowder to claim the NJCAA District J title.

"I didn't give up on these kids. I kept talking about it daily, pushing them daily and riding them daily," Diehl said. "We did a worksheet that I do all the time since I've coached where we wrote down why everybody matters and why this team needed each player. They'd write about the coaches as well. Every one of the kids put on mine "Thanks for pushing me every day." They thanked me for never being satisfied with where we were at and never leaving them alone when it came to getting better."

For Diehl, convincing herself to take on the challenge of coaching college softball was tough enough. When the position originally became available last spring, Diehl did not even apply for the job.

"It was scary, the idea of quitting my job, selling my house and whether I would be good enough," Diehl said. "All of those things that race through your head change your whole life. I was fortunate enough that the job kind of came to me. I'm thankful now. My life has changed so much over the past year.

"That's what I shared with our kids out in Utah (at the national tournament). I'm so grateful that they came into my life. They challenged me and I needed that new challenge. I loved it at Clarke, but these guys made me find different ways to coach difference kids."

Accepting the challenge for Diehl has left her in a great position as the head coach of a Warrior softball team that is poised to have three returning All-Americans among the 10 returning sophomores on the 2020 squad. Several talented Iowa High School softball players including Alexis Handel (Atlantic), Tiffany Unkel (Cedar Rapids Jefferson), Nicole Bellis (Dowling Catholic), Eryn Ackerman (Davenport Assumption), Anna Voigt (Ankeny), Brooke Tucker (Indianola), Grace Hovenga (Janesville), Peyton Moffett (Southeast Polk), C.J. Banner (Des Moines East), Hannah Poortinga (Des Moines Hoover) and Ottumwa senior Morgan Greiner are slated to highlight the incoming freshman class for Diehl's second season.

"Only losing four kids is a pretty good feeling. When I'm lining up our schedule for next year, I want to take this team down to play teams in Texas and teams in Florida," Diehl said. "After meeting these coaches at the national tournament, I feel confident I can reach out and get a great schedule put together. These teams and coaches know how good we are and they want to test themselves against us.

"I want to face the best teams in the country. I feel a sense of confidence with the level of talent we have both from the returning players and the freshmen. The biggest thing I took away watching us play against the best teams in the country is that we are not lacking in terms of the talent needed to compete at that level. It's just a matter of having the mindset that we can go out there and beat the best, which is the part of the game I love to coach."

Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.