No-hitter marks end to Central softball NCAA road

Central Dutch Athletics

Central Dutch Athletics

ST. PAUL, MINN.—It took a no-hitter to finally end Central College’s NCAA Division III softball tournament run as No. 7-ranked St. Thomas (Minn.) escaped with a 1-0 win in the St. Paul, Minnesota Regional Championship Saturday.

The Tommies (37-8) move on to meet the Decorah, Iowa Regional winner in next weekend’s NCAA Super Regional to determine a berth in the eight-team finals in Oklahoma City May 24-29.

St. Thomas hurler Hayley Dunning kept Central (29-12) hitless for seven innings, striking out two. The Dutch had clawed their way back to the tourney title round with a pair of one-run wins Friday.

A crushing end to the team’s tourney hopes is never a feel-good moment, but for coach George Wares, the effort was worthy of a season finale and the close to another chapter to a remarkable Central softball legacy.

“It’s hard to be sad about the performance the last three games because that’s what you want to do,” Wares said. “I thought we competed. There was a lot of battle. The end result wasn’t always good but what we tried to get in terms of the passion we showed and the competitiveness.”

Even without a hit, the Dutch drew five walks and came achingly close to forcing a final game. The play that will likely linger in their minds longest came in the final inning as catcher Emily Walton (senior, Cedar Rapids, Jefferson HS) led off with a walk. With one out, second baseman Paige Dickel (senior, Norwalk) rifled a sinking liner into right field, where Jeena Beeso made a diving attempt. She was unable to make the grab and Dickel would have broken up the no-hitter, but pinch-runner Kendra Sexton (junior, Danbury, Maple Valley-Anthon-Oto HS) was unable to drift too far from first base until she knew the ball would touch the turf. Beeso recovered in time to force Sexton out as she scampered to second base, turning Dickel’s hit into a bad-break fielder’s choice. That killed the rally and Central’s comeback chances, leaving Wares to play the what-ifs.

“We got unlucky,” he said. “Paige Dickel hit it about as hard as you can hit it and, Kendra, there’s really nothing she can do there. That’s one of those moments where I was really close to just yelling to Kendra, ‘Let’s go, let’s run.’ Then we’ve got first and third there with one out, but it didn’t happen, they threw her out and that’s the way it ended.”

Central also had a big first-inning chance. Center fielder Sara Tallman (sophomore, Pella) walked to open the game, then swiped second and third, extending her school season record to 47 stolen bases. She was there with one out and left fielder Tabitha Taylor (senior, Grimes, Dallas Center-Grimes HS) at the plate. But Central couldn’t chase the run home.

“The first inning we had that chance,” Wares said. “We felt we could run. Then you’ve got that tough call with one of your hottest hitters. Do we let her swing away or do we try to do some short game? If I’d known the end result, I would have gone short game and tried to get the first run. But if you’d have told me we’d only given up one run after six innings, I’d have said we’ve got a 4-1 lead or something.”

That it was still 1-0 at the end was a testament to the Dutch pitchers, who endured more than their share of rocky outings but sparkled in the final three games. Presenting one of their most frightening challenges were the Tommies, who hit .335 for the season and average 7.0 runs a game. Pitcher Mariah Fritz (junior, Tama, East Marshall HS), who suffered a 5-2 loss in the regional opener Thursday, answered the call in a big way Saturday with 4.1 innings of two-hit shutout relief. Starter Annie DeVries (senior, Eldridge, North Scott HS), coming off a glossy one-hit shutout of Wis.-Oshkosh Friday, took the hard-luck loss. DeVries (14-4) gave up a second-inning run on two hits and walked one over 1.2 innings.

But the Dutch got the break that almost made a big difference. After scoring a run off DeVries in the second inning, St. Thomas loaded the bases against Fritz. Shortstop Daria Parchert (freshman, Illinois City, Ill., Rockridge HS) made a bid for a web gem with a diving stab at a line drive by leadoff hitter Elise Barnes. The ball slipped out of Parchert’s glove as she hit the turf but Barnes had stopped running and Parchert was able to throw her out at first base, wiping a run from the board and ending the inning.

“Initially, Mariah (Fritz) wasn’t very good,” Wares said. “She got behind. But we got out of the inning, fortunately, I felt like that was a huge break for us because I’m sure they were in that moment thinking this could be that big inning that could break it wide open.

“The word to our pitchers today was we just can’t walk people. We’ve got to challenge, we can’t be afraid of getting hit. And from that point on, Mariah was in much better command and really pitched well to keep us in it and give us a chance to win.”

Wares was quick to credit St. Thomas as well

“As good as their pitcher was, and she was really good, they made some great defensive plays,” he said. “It was one of those games that was a game of inches and we ended up on the short end of it. I feel really good about how we played in this tournament after day one yet still disappointed, but we got beat by a very good softball team.”

Taylor, Walton and DeVries were named to the all-tournament team. It’s the third time Taylor has received NCAA all-tournament honors.

The season end is perennially emotional for the Dutch and generally abrupt, closing 29 times in the NCAA tournament in Wares’ 34 years at the helm. The relationships make the ending difficult, no matter when it happens.

“It’s not just the game, it’s the people you’ve tried to help and they’ve helped you,” Wares said. “You learn from your players as much as they learn from you.”

The day marked the career end for seven Central players. Taylor, Walton, Dickel and DeVries were varsity mainstays for four years. Meanwhile Kaci Braner (New Berlin, Ill.), Amanda Romero (Tucson, Ariz.) and Sydney Rudd (Brooklyn, BGM HS) were integral parts of the squad as well.

“They’re special,” Wares said. “We say it every year but it’s true every year. You look at the four that are on the field and the three others who were here today, who saw the field very little. It’s always hard. They all have different paths and different stories.

“When Luther really stuck it to us in the conference tournament (a 9-1 setback May 5) and we thought we might not get in, the worst feeling with that was thinking that was that these seniors’ careers were going to end with that kind of game. To have this weekend and to have three of the four games be really solid, at least lets them end their career in a better place than they did in the conference tournament.”

Dickel said she can’t ask for anything more.

“I wish every girl could get the chance to play at Central, not just because of the game but because of who coaches you and who you get to play with,” she said. “It’s indescribable.”

Taylor made a dent in the school career records. She closed with a .341 career batting mark, which ranks 18th in school history, finished 11th in RBIs with 96 and had 156 hits, which is tied for 13th. DeVries was 16th in career victories with 29 and fifth in saves with eight.

Central’s 2018 squad ranks ninth in team batting average (.314), 10th in on-base percentage (.386) and tied for third in triples (19).

The Dutch will return six starters for 2019, including the team’s leading hitter, right fielder Shaye Witte (sophomore, West Des Moines, Waukee HS), who hit .404 in her first year at Central. Also back is Tallman, who batted .387 with 50 runs scored, which ranks second in school history.

“There’s a lot to be excited about,” Wares said.

And count Dickel among those anticipating big things from the 2019 Dutch while cherishing a lifetime of memories from 2018.

“This team was something special. I wasn’t expecting anything different coming into this weekend,” she said. “I think everybody saw, especially after the first game, the battle that was in every player. Finally getting to see it come alive these last few days was something special, even as a senior. It makes me excited for what they can do next year. I know if they play like that, coming out of the gate, teams better watch out, because they’ll come back and I can’t wait to watch them.”

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Posted by on May 13 2018. Filed under College Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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