KEOSAUQUA – As he filled out his lineup card for the second game of Thursday's varsity doubleheader with Centerville, Van Buren County head softball coach Randy Smith had a thought.
"We may not be ranked, but we deserve a better draw this postseason than what we've gotten in the past," Smith said.
Ultimately, Smith knows the Warriors will have to beat quality opponents in order to make a run at the program's first trip to the state softball tournament. Van Buren County improved to 10-2 on the season with a pair of shutout wins over the Redettes, winning 11-0 in a five-inning opener before clinching a 10-0 six-inning win in the nightcap on Callie Kracht's two-out RBI single.
Chelsey Huff helped guide the Warriors to 11-2 on Friday afternoon in the opener of the 41st annual Fairfield Softball Invitational tournament. Huff pitched a complete game, allowing one run on six hits with four strikeouts, while delivering a key blow in the third inning of a 5-1 win over Chariton by drilling a three-run home run over the fence in dead center to erase a 1-0 Charger lead.
"The thing about it is that, no matter what the draw is, you have to play good to advance," Smith said. "We could end up going west and face someone like Pella Christian. We could go east and see teams like (second-ranked) Louisa-Muscatine or (top-ranked) Wilton. You have to play good softball by the time the postseason begins. That's what we're striving to do.
"There will be good competition coming up, but we've proven already this year we can hang in there with some very good teams."
In fact, the only two losses suffered by Van Buren County have come against two Southeast Iowa Superconference teams with hopes of competing at state next month. The Warriors lost a south division showdown with fourth-ranked (3A) West Burlington-Notre Dame last week, stranding the bases loaded late in a 7-4 loss to the Falcons, before falling 6-2 to Louisa-Muscatine on Wednesday as the Falcons scored four unearned runs in the final three innings.
"We've got some young kids in spots that they're just not quite used to. They'll make some great plays one minute, but also occasionally miss a routine ground ball," Smith said. "That's just youth. Experience will take care of that. These are good kids. Teams around going to have to hit the ball to beat us, especially with Huff and (Aly) Campbell in the pitching circle."
Huff and Campbell both tossed complete-game shutouts against Centerville, each earning their fifth pitching wins of the season for the Warriors. Huff opened the night by tossing a one-hit shutout against the Redettes, striking out eight batters while retiring the final 13 Centerville batters of the opener.
"When I gave up a pretty hard-hit single in the first, I was kind of bracing myself," Huff said. "I was hoping our defense would be able to make some plays for me."
Huff may have helped her own cause inadvertently after stranding Claire Mathews, the opposing opening-game pitcher and the only player ultimately to record a hit off Huff. With two outs in the bottom of the first, Huff hustled down the line trying to beat out a ground ball to the left side of the Redette infield.
Huff made it to first base safely, so to speak, as the Van Buren County senior took a tumble after beating the throw across the diamond. For a brief moment, it appeared Huff might have taken herself out of the game with an injury.
"I definitely thought I was going to stand up with blood dripping down my arm," Huff said.
Huff's arm was perfectly fine, as Centerville batters would ultimately attest to. Once she got up, Huff was run for by Bree Kirkhart and returned to a Van Buren County dugout that was suddenly filled with laughter.
"I was definitely laughing. I don't think the girls were even that worried about me at all," Huff joked.
Huff's tumbling infield single would be the first of four straight hits for the Warriors. Annabel Cormier doubled in Kirkhart before scoring on an RBI single by Ivy Davidson, who came home on a run-scoring hit by Campbell to give Van Buren County a sudden 3-0 lead.
"Whenever it goes from 0-0 to 3-0 like that, it takes a lot of pressure off as a pitcher."
Centerville (3-9) did not muster another hit in the doubleheader until a one-out single by Teaghan Maxwell in the first inning of game two. By that point, head coach Merle Jones had pieced together a line-up that included four new starters, including a first-time starting pitcher in eighth-grader Molly Moore as the Redettes moved forward without Mathews, who came out suffering from dehydration in the bottom of the second inning of the opening game.
"Claire is a very gifted two-time all-stater, but we're a program of 30 players," Jones said. "She went down. We just had to carry on. I thought our young kids played very well."
Moore in particular was impressive in her first two innings over varsity softball, preventing the first nine Van Buren County hitters from sending a ball to the outfield while keeping the second game scoreless until the third. Huff helped get the Warriors going at the plate in the nightcap, going 3-3 with a walk, a two-run double and a run-scoring on a single by Davidson that gave Campbell a sudden 4-0 lead to work with after three.
"Every time I go up to the plate, I'm just hoping to make contact and move some runners around," Huff said. "The speed of the pitches were something we had to adjust to, especially after facing (Louisa-Muscatine all-state senior Kylee Sanders). She throws a lot harder, so we had to adjust to that change of speed."
Brooklyn Cormier matched Huff in the second game by driving in three runs for the Warriors. Kirkhart added a triple and scored a run in the fourth, helping Van Buren County open a 7-0 lead, while Kracht finished 2-4 scoring the first run of game two for the Warriors before driving in two runs while batting four times in the final four innings.
Breckyn Carney collected Centerville's only extra-base hit on Thursday, doubling with two outs in the third nearly giving Moore a lead to work with in the nightcap. Maxwell, Kenly Shilling and Rhylan Risher added hits for the Redettes.