KEOSAUQUA — Alexia McClure wasn't about to let five seasons of high school softball come to an end Friday night.
So when Callie Kracht drilled a softball into the right-center field alley Friday night at Manning Field, bidding for a hit that would keep the season alive for 15th-ranked Van Buren County, it was the lone senior on the Cardinal softball team that made good on something of a promise she made to a teammate prior to the start of the inning.
"Before we went out there, I told Kinsey (Hissem) that I wanted the game-winning catch," McClure said. "When that ball was hit in the air, I was going to get it. All I thought about was this is what I wanted. I don't remember in five years of beating Van Buren in the postseason, so it felt really good to put this one away."
McClure truly laid out to rob Kracht of a season-extending hit, grabbing the ball while diving through the air and landing face first in the outfield. McClure easily traded a face full of Manning Field grass to keep another Manning, Isabel, from getting a swing to potentially tie Friday's tense Class 2A, Region 7 semifinal.
Manning, and the rest of the Warriors, could only watch as Cardinal celebrated a 3-0 win advancing the Comets to the regional finals for the first time in nearly a decade. Not since head coach Sabrina Morrison's senior year of high school (2005) has Cardinal played in a state softball tournament.
Monday night at either Iowa City Regina or Louisa-Muscatine, the Comets can end that drought with a win. Eighth-ranked Regina and second-ranked L-M will resume their regional semifinal Saturday in Letts after rain brought a halt to the contest with the score tied at 5-5 in the fifth inning.
"The girls played tremendous from start to finish," said Morrison, who played for Cardinal's 2003 and 2004 state championship teams before qualifying as a senior at Ottumwa for state in 2005. "The girls had a great morning practice mentally getting prepared for the game. I told the girls that we're a comparable team to Van Buren County. It was just going to come down to which team came out more fired up."
That extra energy helped Cardinal (17-13) find more success at the plate against Van Buren County senior pitcher Chelsey Huff then their last trip to the Ferguson Complex. Huff tossed a no-hitter against the Comets back on June 21, leading the Warriors to a 1-0 win snapping Cardinal's season-best six-game winning streak.
Huff, however, knew it wouldn't be that easy on Friday. Emma Becker confirmed that feeling in the first inning with a two-out double for Cardinal, ensuring history would not repeat itself.
"We knew this was going to be a tough game right from the start and we knew we were going to have to battle," Huff said. "We may have won the two games in (Southeast Iowa Superconference south division) play, but we knew it could be totally different this year."
The Warriors were on the opposite end of that spectrum last year, avenging two regular-season losses to the Comets with a 4-3 regional tournament win at Cardinal decided on a late home run by Lexi Jirak. This time, it was Cardinal's turn to hammer a tiebreaking homer as Ava Ferrell picked an incredible time to drill her first career home run, lifting a pitch from Huff over the fence in left with two outs to drive in all three Comet runs in the sixth.
"It's the biggest hit I've ever had," Ferrell said. "I've been close before, but I've never hit a home run on any level. It felt great. It was 0-0 and all I knew was I needed to put some runs on the board."
Ferrell has now driven in five of the last seven runs scored by Cardinal this postseason, all coming in road wins over top-15 opponents. After an important two-run fifth-inning single ultimately helped the Comets hold off No. 11 Wapello, 4-3, on Wednesday, Ferrell's first career homer came in a huge moment as Van Buren County (22-6) caught Brinlee Ostrander too far off of third base on a Kinsey Hissem single with one out that would have loaded the bases, instead leaving the Warriors an out away from escaping the late jam with a scoreless tie still in tact.
One swing later, Ferrell had given Cardinal an instant three-run lead, setting off a wild celebration on the field and from the sea of red-clad fans along the first-base line.
"That should have rattled me that Brinlee got tagged out at third, but it didn't Ferrell said. "It was huge. I got to two strikes and I just knew I needed to get the bat on the ball. It was right down the middle and I made good contact."
While Cardinal will look to qualify for state for the first time in 16 years, Van Buren County will look to build on the program's winningest season. Huff, Manning and Brooklynn Cormier depart the program as seniors after leading the Warriors to new heights in 2021.
"The seniors that are leaving have been a big part of this success, but there's a bigger part in the players that are coming up," Huff said. "This team has speed coming back next year, great players in the field and young players that can step up to fill in our spots. I'm excited to see what these girls can accomplish next year."