Comets fall in 11 inning regional final at Regina

Members of the Cardinal High School softball team head off the field after a 5-4 loss in 11 innings at 14th-ranked Iowa City Regina on Tuesday, ending the season for the Comets one win short of qualifying for the Class 2A Iowa High School Girls State Softball Tournament.

IOWA CITY — It's hard to miss the sign that hangs out front of the press box at the Iowa City Regina softball diamond.

'16 innings. Three hours and 24 minutes. Three-run comeback.'

'Epic game.'

Those are the words used to describe the state championship win by the Regals in 2017, a 5-4 victory over Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont in the Class 2A finals that doubles as the longest game in state tournament history. 'Epic Game 2' may be a fitting way to describe how 14th-ranked Regina booked its most recent trip to the the state softball tournament on Tuesday.

Just like in the 2017 state title game, the Regals rallied in their final at-bat from a 4-1 deficit. Just like in the 2017 state title game, Tuesday's 2A regional championship game went well beyond seven regulation innings.

Unfortunately for the upstart Cardinal Comets, the ending was the same for Regina's opponent. Just like EBF in Fort Dodge four years earlier, Cardinal walked off the diamond drained and distraught as Iowa City Regina scored the winning run with two outs on a ball that got away from the defense moments after a defensive play kept the game going.

In 2017, it was a fielding error by EBF that allowed Regina to score the winning run moments after the Rockets had thrown the potential winning run out at the plate. In 2021, it was a wild pitch with two outs that allowed Gabby Sueppel to come home from third moments after Brinlee Ostrander had tagged out a potential winning run at home on a squeeze bunt, lifting Regina to yet another epic 5-4 postseason win in the 2A, Region 7 championship game.

"It's just a matter of staying positive," Sueppel said. "We just need to fight through and keep playing the game. I love the way we've gotten to state. There have been so many fun games. It feels awesome to come back and win like this."

For Iowa City Regina, it was the second straight night that the Regals had rallied for three runs in the seventh on the verge of a season-ending loss. After waiting out a weekend-long rain delay, Regina returned to second-ranked Louisa-Muscatine on Monday erasing a 7-5 lead for the Falcons in the final inning to earn an 8-7 win over the Southeast Iowa Superconference north division champions.

Cardinal built an even bigger lead, scoring three runs in the sixth inning to snap a 1-1 tie. The Comets found themselves in a familiar position this postseason, carrying a three-run lead into the bottom of the seventh for the third straight game after holding 11th-ranked Wapello 4-3 and 15th-ranked Van Buren County 3-0 in the previous two rounds.

"I knew coming into this game it was going to be tough. I knew we were going to need to play the same type of tough defense we've played through this postseason and we needed to keep hitting the ball," Cardinal freshman pitcher Nicoa McClure said. "Walks killed me in the seventh inning. I knew we were going to go extra innings. Regina's a good team that can really hit the ball."

McClure rebounded to retire six straight batters after Emma Sueppel's squeeze bunt brought in the tying run in the seventh. Emm Nibaur, however, was even tougher as the Regina junior pitcher retired 13 straight Cardinal hitters setting the Comets down in order in the eighth, ninth and 10th innings.

"I just kept telling the girls to step in the box, work the count and find their pitch to hit," Cardinal head softball coach Sabrina Morrison said. "I had no doubts throughout the game we'd find a way to win. I told the girls before we left for the regional final that we've faced tougher teams throughout the season. It just comes down to execution at the time."

Cardinal's execution late in regulation nearly completed a memorable run to state. Trailing 1-0 after four innings, the only senior on the Comet softball squad sparked a rally as Alexia McClure led off the top of the fifth with double down the left field line, screaming back to the dugout from second base before coming home with two outs on Caitlyn Reber's third hit of the game.

"I'm not really a reaction person," Alexia McClure said. "I can't be mad. We fought hard for 11 innings."

After tying the game, Cardinal had Regina reeling defensively in the sixth as Emma Becker's lead-off single was followed by a swinging bunt off the bat of Kinsey Hissem that was misplayed on the infield. Ava Ferrell's ensuing sacrifice bunt also fooled the Regals, loading the bases with no outs before Nicoa McClure's foul ball in foul territory in shallow right allowed Becker to make a run for home to score the go-ahead run for the Comets.

Two batters later, Madison Diveley added yet another clutch late-season hit for the Comets. The eighth-grade outfielder dropped a hit just inside the foul line in right that got past the Regals and rolled to the corner, bringing in Hissem and Ferrell with a two-run triple that put Cardinal in front 4-1.

It was yet another late-game run-scoring hit for the Comets in the postseason. Ferrell scored the second run on Diveley's triple after driving in two runs in the fifth inning of a 4-3 win over Wapello six nights earlier with a single and delivering her first career home run to snap a scoreless tie in the sixth inning at Van Buren County this past Friday night.

Aside from Alexia McClure, all the Comets that were part of the program's closest run to a regional title since 2005 will be back next season. Morrison, who as a player was part of two state championship teams at Cardinal in 2003 and 2004 after falling short of state in 2002, feels a trip to Fort Dodge could be coming for the program as soon as next summer.

"The girls are going to come back and their going to come back stronger than ever," Morrison said. "I'm ready to get started right now. They started to believe in themselves and we brought an entire community of them. I can't be more proud of them."

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

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