OTTUMWA — The Albia softball team has had plenty of reasons to celebrate over the past five years.
In fact, there’s very few things left for the Lady Dees to check off their list of accomplishments. One of those items, however, came on Friday at the 46th Ottumwa Classic.
Playing in very first game of the day, Albia produced the emotional high point of the tournament in a battle with top-ranked Davenport Assumption that may very well have been a preview of the Class 3A state softball championship game. The third-ranked Lady Dees jumped out to a 4-0 lead, rallied from a 6-4 deficit and held off the Knights in a dramatic final inning to earn an 8-7 win over a program that beat out Albia for a state tournament berth in 2016 and in the Class 3A state title game in 2017.
“With them being ranked No. 1 and us being ranked No. 3, our kids felt like they needed to give Assumption a good game,” Albia co-head softball coach Jani Dorpinghaus said. “I know Alex (Beard) and Jena (Lawrence) love big games. They thrive in those games and they bring everyone right along with them. That’s what happened in this game. They willed us to do what we needed to do.”
Beard and Lawrence have been right at the heart of perhaps the greatest run in the history of the Albia softball program. After winning a Little League state championship together with several other current senior teammates, Lawrence and Beard helped the Lady Dees make a surprising run to a conference title and trip to the regional championship game against Assumption as eighth graders.
The next year, as freshmen, Lawrence and Beard helped Albia qualify for the state softball tournament including a stunning regional championship win at Solon. The two were key members of Albia’s first ever run to the state finals, where again Assumption would be waiting at the end of the road.
All of that played into Friday’s contest, the first July meeting between the schools since the final game of the 2017 state softball tournament. The Lady Dees were alive right from the start, working three consecutive 3-2 counts for walks off Assumption pitcher Libby Madden before Lawrence delivered an RBI single to put Albia up 1-0 without an out being record.
Lauren Bayer, one of Albia’s new faces in the varsity lineup, added a two-run single to center. Lexi Jones, running for Lawrence, came around to score after an errant throw from center got past Assumption catcher Anna Wohlers, giving Albia a sudden 4-0 lead.
“We’ve been looking forward to this game ever since we found out we’d be playing Assumption in this tournament,” Beard said. “That’s the ultimate goal, to play Assumption for a state championship. I woke up excited, even more so for this game. I was ready to get out here.
“We had to kind of tell the younger girls just how big a game this was. Once they knew, they were even more excited and it carried through a really fun game.”
The fun continued in the bottom of the first thanks to a two-out, bases-clearing double by Maddie Loken that brought Assumption back within 4-3. Wohlers and Loken would each strike for home runs in the third inning, giving Assumption a 6-4 lead.
“You know going in with a team as dangerous as Assumption that you’re going to need to score as many runs as possible,” Lawrence said. “They’ve got great hitters. They know what they’re looking for at the plate. They’re an overall, phenomenal team. That’s what made scoring four runs in the first inning so important.”
Lawrence rebounded by retiring the next five Assumption hitters, including four strikeouts, to keep the Knights in range. MaKenna Ross and Beard both singled to open the fifth, giving Lawrence a chance to bring Albia (12-1) back at the plate with a clutch two-run double to the left-center field gap, tying the game with one swing.
“Assumption’s a quality team, but it never felt like the game was getting away from us,” Lawrence said. “I think we had confidence in ourselves no matter what the scoreboard said.”
Albia ultimately could not push the go-ahead run across the plate, including a nifty 360 spin and throw home for a force out by Assumption first baseman Helen Sons on a ground ball hit by Abbie Martin. Lawrence answered in the bottom of the fifth, pitching around a one-out single by Wohlers stranding the potential winning run at third by striking out Lauren Loken looking.
With that, the 90-minute time limit expired. The two teams went to the sixth tied at 6-6 with the international tiebreaker in effect. Albia capitalized on a throwing error to bring home Ellie Spurgin, who started the inning on second base, but would get the decisive blow of the game two batters later when Beard lifted her school-record 29th career home run over the fence in left to give the Lady Dees an 8-6 lead.
“I was just really excited because I’ve been in a slump recently,” Beard said. “Once I hit a second base, I realized what this meant. We’re up in the final inning. We’re winning this game. I was excited for the entire team.
“Thank god she hit that. They came right back out and got that run back,” Lawrence said.
Maddie Loken’s second double of the game greeted Lawrence in the bottom of the sixth, bringing home Jessie Wardlow from second. Up 8-7 with the tying run in scoring position, Lawrence forced Sydney Roe into a fly out to center before striking out Madden and Katie Anderson to cap one of Albia’s most gratifying softball wins.
In between her 10th and 11th strikeouts, however, Lawrence called on her best friend and longtime catcher for a conference in the pitching circle.
“She was throwing fine, so when she called time, I instantly got scared,” Beard said. “I thought she might be about to pass out. Maybe it’s too hot, so I walked out there. All she told me was she just needed a break.
“I was just going and going. If I’m going to pitch well, I need to take a breather right here,” Lawrence added.
The final strikeout set off a celebration in the middle of the Huston Field diamond usually reserved for regional championship wins for the Albia softball team. Considering the opponent, and the high stakes of a potential rematch between the two later this month, the Lady Dees treated Friday’s game like a postseason encounter.
“I know I had the same butterflies that I’ve had before some of those regional championship and state tournament games,” Beard said. “That’s the same fire we brought to this game. Beating Carlisle earlier this year and now beating Assumption, I feel like we’ve held ourselves back in previous years. Now, we’re kind of breaking through barriers and beating teams we know we can beat. Our hard work is really starting to pay off.”