(Sentinel photo by Roy Tucker)
The No. 2-ranked Lady Westerners gave top-ranked Solon free lessons in bunting, slap-hitting, baserunning and defense on their way to a convincing 9-2 victory and the school's first-ever state softball title Friday night at Harlan Rogers Field in Fort Dodge.
"I was just so proud of the way the kids executed on offense and defense," said head coach Todd Colt, who has now compiled a 126-21 record in four seasons as the A-W helm, collecting a sixth-place state finish in 2003 and third in 2004 before this years title run. "If there's such a thing as playing perfect from the start to the end of the game, we were very close to that."
Solon's sophomore ace Courtney Strang (34-4) had been perfect on the mound in this year's state tournament, tossing a pair of 1-0 shutouts to lead the Spartans to the title game. Strang was also perfect in the 2003 state tournament, leading Solon to the 2A title as an eighth grader by tossing seven straight shutouts through district, regional and state competition, but the Lady Westerners wasted no time and put up two runs in the top of the first inning Friday night.
Sophomore Rachel Harris set the tone early, leading off the game by slapping a single through the left side. After a Tana Colt sacrifice bunt moved Harris into scoring position, pitcher Tarah Colt helped herself by ripping an RBI double into leftcenter to get A-W on the board first. Colt moved to third on a Catie Bobier bunt and came around to score the second run when Solon third baseman Chiara Erenberger mishandled a Kayla Smith grounder.
"I like to be able to hit the ball," said Tarah Colt. "I feel like I can do some things offensively too, rather than just defensively. It wasn't just one or two people either. Everybody hit the ball well."
Colt (33-1) hadn't allowed a run in the state tournament and had given up just one in six postseason games, but the high-powered Solon offense answered with a run in the bottom of the first on and RBI double by Lindsey Kidwell.
"Their offense, we really respected it," said coach Colt. "They have three girls that are legit home run hitters and their shortstop (Quinn Morelock) has hit 23 for the year. We knew that they we're going to score runs and we were just hoping that they weren't gonna knock it out of the ballpark on us and have big innings."
A-W turned to its small-ball game in the top of the second to push across two more runs with two outs. Senior Kristin Dirks started the two-out rally with a bunt that resulted in an error. She moved into scoring position with a stolen base and came around to score when shortstop Morelock fielded a Rachel Harris grounder and threw it past third. Tana and Tarah Colt followed with back-to-back singles, the ladder bringing Harris around to make it 4-1.
Colt went back out to the mound and didn't allow a hit over the second and third innings, striking out three batters and getting nice defensive plays behind her from third baseman Kashe Manley and Dirks in rightfield.
The Lady Westerners extended their lead to 7-1 with three more runs in the top of the fourth.
Dirks and Harris again set the table, with Dirks working a walk and Harris reaching on a slap off the third baseman's glove. A Tana Colt bunt single loaded the bases and Bobier fouled off four two-strike pitches before clearing the bases with a line drive single to leftcenter. Dirks and Harris scored easily, while Tana Colt was thrown out at the plate before eventually being ruled safe due to an obstruction call on Solon's pitcher.
The Spartans again looked to rally in the bottom of the fourth, but the A-W defense responded and closed the door. Erenberger and Carly Goolsby led off with back-to-back singles, but Erenberger was cut down between second and third after rightfielder Dirks fired a strike to Manley at third, who threw back to second to catch Erenberger off the bag. Krystal Kopp appeared to have another single up the middle, but Tana Colt made a full-extension diving stop and threw to first for the out. Harris then snagged a flyball to center to end the threat.
"I can think of four or five kids that made big defensive plays for us and they were just momentum breakers," said coach Colt, whose team committed just one error in three tournament games. "Just when Solon would get something would get something going, we would come up with a play that was not routine, but they still made it."
Solon moved to within 7-2 with an RBI single by Morelock in the fifth, but the Lady Westerners again responded as Tana Colt managed a one-out walk in the sixth and scored on Bobier's hard-hit grounder to shortstop.
Tarah Colt set the Eastern Iowa Conference champs down in order in the sixth, highlighted by a diving catch by Bobier on a sinking liner up the middle.
Senior Andrea Parkinson, who had come in to catch in the fourth inning, ripped a double to lead off the seventh and scored an insurance run on a squeeze bunt by Manley that made it 9-2.
Solon's first two batters in the bottom of the seventh were retired on two pitches and Colt struck out Morelock looking to end the game, wrap up a 39-1 summer and give the Lady Westerners the Class 2A State softball championship.
"I just sat back and let the girls enjoy the moment because they were the ones who put in the time to deserve this moment," said coach Colt. "I think I probably underestimated their desire to win just a little bit. I think the girls were convinced that they could play with anyone down there and they proved it."
Proving themselves at the state level is something that this group of A-W players, especially the six members of the senior class, have been working towards for a long time.
"It's just something that we've all been looking forward to since we played together in third grade," said senior first baseman Stephanie Eekhoff. "We all knew this was our last time we were going to play together and we basically wanted to leave everything on the field. We knew we wanted to do all the little things right and if we did, everything would fall together and that's just what happened."