Spartans take No. 1 Mustangs to the wire, fall 1-0
FONDA (July 12) -- The third time was nearly a charm for the Exira-Elk Horn-Kimballton softball team.
Loading the bases with one out in the top of the seventh inning, the Spartans were just a base hit away from tying the game or taking the lead against top-ranked Newell-Fonda.
Instead, N-F freshman ace Kierra Jungers buckled down and struck out the next two batters on pitches up in the zone, allowing the Mustangs to escape Monday night’s Class 1A, Region 2 final with a slim 1-0 victory.
Newell-Fonda advanced to its fourth consecutive state tournament with a record of 35-4 and will be the top seed in 1A, facing North Butler (20-5) in a quarterfinal game Monday at 11:00 a.m. in Fort Dodge.
The unranked Spartans, who finished 22-7, saw their third straight season end in Fonda. They lost a regional final to the Mustangs 10-0 last year and suffered an 8-1 defeat in the 2019 semifinals.
The Spartans brought their ‘A’ game this time around, playing error-free defense behind a sensational pitching performance from junior Macy Emgarten, who allowed just six singles and one run in six innings.
“We held the number one team in 1A to one run. That’s awesome,” said Exira-EHK head coach Andrea Nulle.
“I thought we played about as perfect a game as we could have on defense. We didn’t have any errors. Alisa (Partridge) had incredible plays in the outfield, Shay (Burmeister) did at shortstop, Hannah (Nelson) was on the good end of some plays at (first), Quinn (Grubbs) had a nice pickoff. I felt like everyone contributed tonight. I think everyone had at least one putout.”
Nulle added: “Macy threw an incredible game. I think she was a little motivated considering how they hit her last year. She was ready to come and play. I think everyone was ready to play and that’s all you can do.”
Newell-Fonda scored the game’s only run in the fourth inning when Macy Sievers sprinted home on a wild pitch. Sievers led off the frame with a single to center that dropped just in front of a charging Partridge. She stole second base, and after a walk to Ella Larsen, went to third on a ground ball to the right side before scoring on the wild pitch.
Exira-EHK got singles from Mollie Rasmussen, Nelson and Gemini Goodwin the first time through the order vs. Jungers, then went 0-for-9 the second time around with three strikeouts and three pop flies to the pitcher.
Burmeister drew a one-out walk in the sixth to snap Jungers’ string of nine straight retired, but was promptly picked off first by catcher Maggie Walker.
The Spartans, however, would not go away without a fight in the seventh.
Quinn Grubbs, who flew out to the fence way back in the first, led things off with a shot just inside the third base bag for a double. After Emgarten reached on a bunt single, the Spartans had runners on first and third with nobody out.
The next two batters were also called on to bunt with mixed results. Rasmussen got caught with a pitch high and tight and her bunt in the air was snagged in foul territory by the first baseman Larsen. Makenzie Riley’s bunt was fielded in front of the pitching circle by Jungers, who elected to look Grubbs back to third and take her chances with the bases loaded.
Her decision paid off as she struck out Nelson and Mariah Traever - both swinging - to end the game.
Newell-Fonda head coach Courtney Darrow was proud of the poise shown by her pitcher and fielders to escape a tough situation.
“I was really proud of how our girls played throughout the whole game,” she said. That last inning, having (a runner) on third with no outs and then bases loaded with one out, they just played tremendous in a pressure situation, and that’s what we’re going to see at the state tournament because everyone is going to be coming at us. We’re going to have a target on our back and the girls just have to be ready for anything thrown at them.
“It was a close game and they stayed very calm and we came out on top, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
Coach Nulle said that she had no regrets about using the bunt strategy to try to tie the game in the seventh. The Spartans’ small-ball tactics played a key role in close regional wins over Audubon and Woodbine last week.
“It was a 1-0 game. We needed one run to score. I thought we could get it done if you execute the bunt,” she said. “It’s a beautiful part of the game. It’s not the most respected part for the casual fans, but the ones who know the game know how important the bunt is. It’s the little things in games like this that you have to execute in order to advance. These are the cream of the crop [teams], they go to state for a reason. You’ve got to execute when you need to.”
Emgarten (20-5) pitched outstanding in defeat with one walk, one hit batter and six hits allowed to go along with just one strikeout. She induced a lot of weak contact against a talented lineup and escaped jams when necessary.
McKenna Sievers, Bailey Sievers and Macy Sievers all singled in the fifth for N-F, but the key play of the inning was Grubbs picking McKenna Sievers off third with Rasmussen applying the tag.
“I think last year when we lost to them 10-0... she’s carried that with her all year long and that’s motivated her in the off-season and preseason workouts and into the season too, and I think she just really wanted it tonight,” Nulle said of her pitcher. “She wanted some redemption and I think she redeemed herself. She looked pretty good against a team that hits .450.”
Jungers (26-3) countered with a five-hit shutout, one walk and nine strikeouts, and was at her best during the middle innings.
“I think she was starting to (pitch) a little more inside and we were playing her for the outside, and just keeping our batters on their toes a little bit,” Nulle said. “(Her) riseball got them, and then I thought my girls were a little too amped up sometimes in the box, which I understand because it’s a regional final, but sometimes you’ve got to take a deep breath.
“We were hitting her and we put the ball in play; we just couldn’t score the runners.”
Coach Darrow said that she fully expected a tough game from Exira-EHK on Monday after the Mustangs had ended the Spartans’ last two seasons.
“Defensively they played great. They took a lot of hits away in the gaps. They made the right throws,” she said. “Emgarten kept us on our heels all night. We couldn’t really find that solid hit - that big hit when we needed it - and she pitched an excellent game.
“It’s hard to beat a team three times... when the season’s on the line, and I knew that they were going to give it their best and we were going to give it ours and it was going to come down to who made the best plays. Thankfully we came out on top.”
The Spartans will lose just one senior off the 2021 roster in Tatum Grubbs, who did not play this summer while recovering from knee surgery in March. Nulle stated that veteran Grubbs was a great teammate in the dugout and a fine example for some of the younger players.
“She handled it well,” said Nulle. “She was a good example for some of those that weren’t playing in just how to carry yourself; how to be a good teammate when you’re not actually doing anything on the field. You can still find a way to be important and have a role.”
With basically the whole team set to return next year, Nulle is hopeful that her players stay dedicated in the off-season and come back on a mission in 2022.
“I wish we could have taken advantage of what we had tonight, but that should motivate us again and hopefully with (this) junior class we can get that ultimate goal of being (at) state next year,” she said. “I think they’re going to come back hungry and they really want it, and we’ve got everyone coming back.
“I hope the people who didn’t play compete and realize that not every spot is guaranteed and that spots can be taken because that’s what’s going to make us better is people competing and not settling.”
Class 1A, Region 2 Softball Tournament
First Round Scores - Tuesday, July 6
Bishop Garrigan 13, Glidden-Ralston 1 (4) Audubon 11, Boyer Valley 2
Ar-We-Va 14, West Bend-Mallard 0 (5) Woodbine 2, Coon Rapids-Bayard 0
Logan-Magnolia 5, West Harrison 2
Regional Quarterfinal Scores - Wednesday, July 7
Newell-Fonda 11, Bishop Garrigan 1 (5) Exira-EHK 1, Audubon 0
St. Edmond 4, Ar-We-Va 3 Woodbine 1, Logan-Magnolia 0
Regional Semifinal Scores - Friday, July 9
Newell-Fonda 12, St. Edmond 0 (4) Exira-EHK 4, Woodbine 3
Regional Final Score - Monday, July 12
#1 Newell-Fonda 1, Exira-EHK 0
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