FORT DODGE — Things didn’t start out well at the plate on Wednesday for Abigail Martin.
The Albia senior right fielder came up with a chance to drive in the first run of the Class 3A state softball semifinal showdown with fifth-ranked Mount Vernon. Jenna Sprague, instead, recorded the first of her five strikeouts for the Mustangs.
“That’s didn’t really look that good,” Martin said with a smile just a couple hours later.
Martin’s smile came from her third and final at-bat of the day. Leading off the bottom of the sixth inning, Martin drilled her fourth home run of the season snapping a 1-1 tie and lifting top-ranked Albia to a thrilling 2-1 win over the Mustangs on the Dodger Diamond at the Harlan and Hazel Rogers Sports Complex.
“Watching my teammates hit the ball throughout the day gave me the confidence that I could hit the ball,” Martin said. “It was the perfect pitch. It felt so good. It looked so beautiful. Being at the state tournament added to it. I’ve never hit a home run here at state.”
“It was unreal to come through in a close game like that. It felt so good.”
The Lady Dees are now one win away from the ultimate good feeling. Albia, playing for a state softball title for just the second time in program history, will face third-ranked Williamsburg on Friday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. The winner will take over the crown as 3A state softball champions worn each of the past three seasons by Davenport Assumption, who were knocked off 5-4 by Williamsburg while Albia and Mount Vernon were heading into the third inning of their 3A semifinal contest.
The final score definitely drew the attention of both teams. Albia’s group of seven seniors lost a regional final in 2016 and the program’s first state championship game in 2017 to Assumption.
“I know (senior catcher) Alex (Beard) didn’t want Williamsburg to win that game,” Albia senior pitcher Jena Lawrence said moments after securing her 100th career high school pitching win. “We all wanted to play for the state title, but Alex wanted to do it and beat Assumption in the title game.”
Mount Vernon gave the Lady Dees (21-1) all they wanted in Wednesday’s later 3A state semifinal. The Mustangs bunted five times and forced Lawrence to field six ground balls around the pitching circle while striking out just two times against the hard-throwing senior ace.
“I haven’t had many ground balls or bunts that I’ve had to make plays on,” Lawrence said. “I’ve got to do my job as a fielder. I’m in the field just like the rest of my teammates. There were some very difficult plays. I had to run in to field a ball and make a throw in the opposite direction. I had to make weird turns after grabbing the ball and final a way to get the ball to whoever is covering first.”
Despite testing almost every Albia infielder throughout the game, Mount Vernon’s lone run came on a ball that was hit over everyone on the field. Nicole Sullivan, who joined Beard on Monday as one of just 19 players to hit a grand slam at a state softball tournament in a 7-4 win over Humboldt, drilled her second tournament homer leading off the fourth inning to tie the game at 1-1.
“At the beginning of the game, I always throw my rise ball. They did a good job keeping their hands up,” Lawrence said of the Mount Vernon hitters, who struck out just twice in seven innings. “They were prepared for it, which happens the more people talk about what pitches are most effective for me. When I started throwing drop balls, that’s when they started hitting ground balls. They’d get ready for the riser and swing over the top.
“At first, I thought I wasn’t throwing well. I started to realize that good teams are going to hit the ball. I just had to adjust my pitch location.”
Lawrence and Beard both had a pair of hits in both the third and fifth innings as Albia had chances to score more runs throughout the game. Lauren Bayer struck out to end the third-inning threat, Danica Workman was picked off third base with one out in the fourth before striking out with the bases loaded in the fifth as Sprague and the Mustang defense continued to thwart the Lady Dees.
“When you put two good teams together, you have to expect a game like this,” Albia co-head softball coach Jani Dorpinghaus said. “We knew coming in this was probably going to be a one-run game. It was going to be the team that executed at the right time. We left too many runners on base, but we executed at the right time.”
While Albia was struggling to execute at the plate, the Lady Dees were keeping Mount Vernon off the scoreboard in the field. Besides the plays by Lawrence, the Albia infield defense came up with two big double-plays including senior teammates Jade Boland, Abbey Griffin and Makenna Ross teaming up for a 5-4-3 twin killing to end the top of the second.
Mackenna Jones led Albia with three hits in Wednesday’s contest, including a deep two-out single to center that drove in Lauren Bayer with the first run in the bottom of the second. Jones was back on the Dodger Diamond after suffering her only loss of her sophomore season in the pitching circle last summer in a consolation-game loss to Algona.
“We talked before the game that we were back on the same field we took our second loss at state on last year,” Jones said. “I think, eventually, our mindset went right to that it’s just another field. We’re a great team and we’re going to do great.
“I’ve struggled at times this season. I don’t think I’ve had three hits in any game. It felt good to get that first run on the board.”
Mount Vernon (20-6) seemed poised to snap the 1-1 tie in the top of the sixth, putting the first two runners on base before moving both runners into scoring position with one out. Lawrence then secured her second strikeout before forcing Cate Morgan to fly out to Martin, who stepped to the plate moments later and delivered the game’s deciding blast over the fence in right center field.
“No catch is ever routine at state, but that one in the sixth was pretty stress free,” Martin said. “It was so stressful in that moment making that final out to keep the game tied before leading off the next inning, but it also felt so good with the way it played out.”
Albia had more big play to make in the field to clinch a return to the state championship game. Caitlin Babcock reached to open the seventh on an error, allowing Lilly See to run and reach second on a sacrifice bunt with the potential tying run.
See watched as Summer Brand grounded a ball to Bayer at short. As Bayer made the throw to Ross at first, See broke for third leading to Ross throwing back across the diamond to Boland for the game’s final out.
“I couldn’t believe she was taking off for third. She wasn’t even halfway there when I caught the ball at first,” Ross said. “There was no doubt I was making that throw to Jade.
“I couldn’t believe it either. I knew that ball was coming my way,” Boland added. “I knew she was out before the umpire made the call. I had her way before she touched the bag. It’s a very exciting way to win a state tournament game.”