ELDON — Lexi Jirak stepped to the plate and delivered a decisive home run for the Van Buren County softball team in a 4-3 postseason win on the road.
If it feels like that sentence has been written before, it has. Last year, in fact, when Jirak blasted a game-winning grand slam for the Warriors in a second-round regional stunner at Highland.
On Monday night, it happened again. Only there was no one on base, it was the seventh inning and the game was at Cardinal.
Jirak snapped a 3-3 tie with a monstrous two-out blast deep over the fence in left. Fittingly, it was Jirak’s younger sister that put the game away as Ella Jirak caught a deep fly ball in left off the bat of Cardinal junior Alexia McClure, who stood at the plate looking either for a game-tying extra base hit or a potential game-winning home run of her own.
McClure, who threw out two Warrior runners at home plate on Monday, swung at the first pitch from Ally Campbell. The fly out clinched a thrilling win for the Warriors and a disappointing third straight loss to close the season for the Comets.
“When we didn’t get the double play earlier (in the seventh), it was going to come back to haunt us,” Van Buren County head softball coach Randy Smith said. “We weren’t going to miss inside to her. We were going to miss outside. It was a pitch on the outside part of the plate. It scared me to death when Ella came running in with her glove up, but she caught it. That’s all that counts.”
“It’s tough knowing that you beat Van Buren County earlier in the season (10-4 in Keosauqua on July 3) and, when it counts, to not come up with the hits or the plays in the right spots,” Cardinal head softball coach Sabrina Morrison said. “It just didn’t fall our way this time. You’ve got that feeling in your gut when you wake in the morning for a game like this that it’s going to be 0-0 and it’s going to come down to who gets the clutch hit at the right time.”
Even before the seventh, the Class 2A regional first round contest saw a fair share of plays being made by both teams in a back-and-forth battle between the Southeast Iowa Superconference south division rivals. McClure made the first big plays, throwing out Libby Caston in the third inning trying to score on a single by Isabel Manning to keep the Warriors from scoring first before scoring in the bottom of the fourth after leading off with a double, giving the Comets a 1-0 lead.
“We knew (Alexia) had a cannon, but we were going to make it be a good throw,” Smith said. “I almost thought about holding Libby on third, especially with Lexi on deck. She circled it in right center and made a great throw. She’s a great outfielder.”
Van Buren County (9-7) answered right back, putting the first two runners of the fifth inning on. Manning tied the score with an RBI double to right center before Chelsey Huff put the Warriors ahead for the first time with a two-out RBI single.
One run is all the Warriors would get, however, as McClure threw out Manning at home trying to score on the same hit. Kinsey Hissem then put the Comets right back on top with a two-run double in the bottom of the fifth.
“There were plays being made by so many different players on both sides of the field,” Smith said. “There were a lot of young kids that stepped up.
“And, a senior.”
Jirak, the lone senior on the Van Buren County softball team, had her Senior Night spoiled 10 days earlier by Cardinal’s 10-4 win over the Warriors at the Ferguson Complex. Annabell Cormier’s RBI single in the sixth tied the score at 3-3 before Ally Campbell pitched around a pair of singles to open the bottom of the sixth by Cardinal seniors Maddie Cloke and Rachel Lewman, setting the stage for the dramatic final inning.
“I told the girls before the game I’ve never beaten Cardinal at Cardinal in softball. This was going to be my last chance,” Jirak said. “I didn’t feel very comfortable most of the night. I was tense all night. I just went into that last at-bat thinking it could be my last at-bat I ever take as a high school softball player.”
Jirak’s blast sends Van Buren County to second-ranked Louisa-Muscatine on Wednesday for the Class 2A regional quarterfinals, the round the Warriors stunned Highland in last year. Jirak is also hoping that history will help propel her team to another postseason upset with a chance to take care of some unfinished business against the Falcons.
“We were 0-6 two years ago and we played Louisa-Muscatine, who at the time was ranked No. 1,” Jirak said. “We were beating them and only need a couple more outs to finish the game when it got rained out. That game is going to be in the back of everyone’s mind.
“We had a chance then. We have a chance now. Just because they’re No. 2 in the state doesn’t mean anything.”