MUSCATINE — If the Muscatine Muskies go on to win the state softball championship this season, perhaps it's fitting that opened the postseason facing Ottumwa at Kent-Stein Park.
After all, a case could be made it was a postseason encounter with the Bulldogs two years ago on their home diamond that put Muscatine on its current path to a potential championship.
Two years after dropping a 12-9 thriller to Ottumwa in the 5A regional finals, Muscatine made sure the Bulldogs would not be able to duplicate that same postseason magic on Saturday. The top-ranked Muskies scored in every inning and fielded virtually every softball put in play by OHS, clinching a 10-0 win in the 5A, Region 5 semifinals on a bases-loaded single by Olivia Harmon with one out in the bottom of the fifth.
Two years after having their hearts broken on their home diamond one win shy of the state tournament, Muscatine (35-3) will host Bettendorf on Tuesday night in the 5A regional finals. One more win will send the Muskies back to state.
Four more wins will clinch a state championship.
"That year we lost to Ottumwa was my first year coaching here," Muscatine head coach Steve Hopkins said. "I've got a few of those kids, some of our current seniors that were sophomores that season. It's been a talented group. The girls don't talk about that loss a lot, but they remember it."
One of those players that was in the middle of the regional championship loss to Ottumwa two years ago had the biggest blow of the night against the Bulldogs. Kalynn Salyars, who helped drive in two of Muscatine's four runs in the fifth inning to erase a 7-3 deficit before grounding into a key double play in the ninth inning of Ottumwa's 12-9 win, homered off the scoreboard on Saturday in left field for the only round-tripper of the game, giving Muscatine a 9-0 lead in the fourth.
Prior to the long ball, however, Muscatine used small ball to score the first run of the game. Future Iowa Hawkeye Rylie Moss dribbled a ball along the first-base line to open the bottom of the first before stealing two bases and eventually scoring on a passed ball, giving the Muskies a 1-0 lead.
"I knew when I hit that, I knew I was going to be able to get on because it was short enough and the field was bouncy enough," Moss said. "When I stole second, I thought I could get to third. I try to steal as many bases to get all the momentum we can.
"Being the first inning, we always talk about having a really fast start. That was a really good job on everyone's part to get off to that fast start."
Jordan Pauls would ultimately be the only Ottumwa batter to collect a hit against the Muskies in the loss. Pauls closed out her sophomore season going 2-2 at the plate with a pair of singles and a running catch in right field, ending a somewhat tough season on a positive note.
"For hitting, I've had a tough season. I was definitely nervous, but it felt great to get back to hitting the ball well," Pauls said. "I wish we could have gotten some more runs, but we had a good season. We'll miss the seniors (Zoey Jones, Anne Guest, Josie Lemonds), but we're a very young team. It started out kind of slow, but as it went along, it turned out to be a pretty good season."
Ottumwa made contact all night at the plate, striking out only two times in five innings. Ultimately, the difference in Saturday's contest came down to a young Bulldog team unable to find open spaces for the ball to drop off the bat while Muscatine sprayed 13 hits around Kent-Stein Park with everything from infield singles like Karly Ricketts' two-out, two-run hit off the glove of OHS first baseman Samantha Weeks in the second to six solid hits in the third that brought five more runs home for the Muskies, opening an eight-run lead.
"Muscatine covers a lot of ground and can really hit the ball," Ottumwa head softball coach Mandi Moore said. "You do your best to move the pitches around the strike zone. The problem with Muscatine is they don't really have a weakness. We defended as well as we could, but Muscatine was going to put the ball in play.
"We're a young team. This is a big regional game for all our girls that were out here. I'm proud of how well our girls came out to compete. We didn't strike out a lot. We didn't commit an error. We'll put a lot of work in during the offseason and have a lot more experience going into next season. I'm excited for it."