WAPELLO — It was a wild ride to deciding which team would earn Southeatern Iowa's regional championship ticket to the Class 2A state softball tournament.
Wednesday night proved that, once again, expect the expected this postseason in the Class 2A, Region 7 tournament.
All three regional quarterfinal games played on Wednesday night were decided by two runs or less. All three saw trailing teams put runs on the board in the seventh inning.
In the end, only one team pulled off a road upset. The Cardinal Comets held on after building a 4-1 lead against No. 11 Wapello, securing a 4-3 upset over the Arrows when Madison Diveley secured the final out, catching a shallow fly ball hit by Morgan Richenberger.
Had the ball dropped on the field, Serah Shafer would have come home from third base to score the tying run. Instead, the catch moves Cardinal within two wins of the state tournament with postseason victories on consecutive nights.
"I was shaking a lot," Diveley said as she awaited Richenberger's fly ball to back to earth. "I was mainly worried I was going to run into (Cardinal second baseman) Caitlyn (Reber). We've had that problem at times this season. I was screaming to let everyone knew I had it, because I didn't want to make an error."
Cardinal has yet to trail in 12 postseason innings thus far, jumping out to a five-run lead in the first inning of a 12-1 win at home on Tuesday over Mediapolis. Reber singled and scored the first of Cardinal's five runs in the first as the Comets sent all nine batters to plate.
Reber led off the second inning with a triple and scored on a wild pitch in the second inning against Mediapolis, giving the Comets a 6-0 lead. Brinlee Ostrander followed Reber's second-inning run with a double, coming around to score the second of three runs for the freshman catcher on a pair of pitches that got away from Mediapolis catcher Tayler Schnedler.
Kinsey Hissem added two run-scoring hits for the Comets (16-13), bringing in Emma Becker in the fourth following a triple by the freshman shortstop. Nicoa McClure added two hits, an RBI and pitched all five innings allowing just one unearned run on two hits while striking out seven batters.
"The thing I told the girls is to not have any regrets out there," Cardinal head softball coach Sabrina Morrison said. "Leave it all out on the field and play your best. It's one thing to have your season come to an end when that team played a little better, but it's another thing to get beat when you beat yourself. If we get beat legitimately by another team at this point, we can live with that for an entire year."
Cardinal again struck for a first-inning run on Wednesday at Wapello. Emma Becker singled, stole second and came home with two outs to give the Comets a quick lead against the 11th-ranked Arrows.
Wapello, however, fought back. Shafer doubled in Ada Boyson, who opened the game with a hit off McClure, to level the game at 1-1.
"We came out a little flat," McClure said. "We had a little talk in the dugout to try to get us going. I think, by the third or fourth inning, we really started to get comfortable and got our momentum going.
"I think, in the first inning, I wasn't completely warmed up. I'll have to do a little better getting warmed up for the next game. I finally got in my groove after the first inning."
Cardinal, however, kept the pressure on Wapello with hits in six of the seven innings against Arrow senior pitcher Aliyah Lolling. Diveley had three of those hits, including a key two-out tiebreaking RBI single in the fourth as fielding error extending the inning, allowing the Comets to cash in on the extra out.
"We really hyped each other on the bus ride over. We needed to worry about playing our game and, if we made a bad play, to brush it off and keep playing the game," Diveley said. "I just tried to make good contact on the center of the ball each time up."
While the Comets kept putting runners on base, McClure and the Cardinal defense stymied Wapello. The Arrows failed to capitalize on a pair of hits in the second inning, leaving the potential go-ahead run stranding in scoring position in each of the first two innings before recording seven straight outs heading into the fifth.
There were several plays the Comets made that, in previous years, might have sparked an opponent's rally. Becker held on to a catch to end the fourth inning despite running into Hissem, who then made a key catch in the fifth inning after Wapello brought the tying run to plate, the first of five straight Wapello batters retired late in the game.
"Two years ago against Wapello in the postseason, I don't think we played our best. That's a hard thing to deal with when you have to wait for an entire year to get that second chance," Morrison said. "The growth and mindset of the girls is different. They believe now. That's something that has been missing from Cardinal softball over the past few years. We've been young and the girls think, because of their age, they've felt like they can't compete. They're starting to believe they can compete and they can compete well."
Two outs away from clinching the upset win, Cardinal had to hold off one last Wapello rally. Sammy Ewart singled with one out before Boyson drew a walk, bringing the tying run back to the plate.
Toni Bohlen grounded out to second, moving both runners into scoring position. Both runners would come home on a wild pitch and a throwing error, bringing Morrison out of the dugout.
"I just wanted to make sure the girls were taking it play by play. Yeah, they got runners on, but those runners didn't mean anything," Morrison said. "The girls have done a better job clearing their minds and playing in the moment, which has been fun to watch."
Shafer tripled to right, putting the tying run on the verge of coming home giving Wapello a chance to save their season. Instead, Diveley put the final out and Cardinal's upset away in shallow right, setting off a huge celebration down the first base line.
"I told the girls from the first day of the season that I've got the hotel rooms booked for my family in Fort Dodge," Morrison said. "That's where we're going to be that week for the state tournament. We don't want to settle for anything less."