Spartans withstand opening challenge from Audubon

First-inning run holds up as Emgarten pitches four-hit shutout, Exira-EHK advances with 1-0 regional SB win

 KIMBALLTON (July 7) -- What seemed innocent enough at the time was ultimately the play of the game.
 Sophomore Shay Burmeister hustled all the way home from second on Quinn Grubbs’ first-inning sacrifice bunt, sliding in safely on a bang-bang play to give Exira-Elk Horn-Kimballton a 1-0 lead over Audubon.
 It would be the only run scored in Wednesday’s Class 1A, Region 2 softball quarterfinal as junior Macy Emgarten barely outdueled Kali Irlmeier and the Spartans held off the Wheelers to survive and advance.
 Emgarten (19-4) pitched a four-hit shutout with seven strikeouts and no walks.
 Irlmeier (12-5) countered with a three-hitter, no walks and four Ks, but an unearned run in the first sealed her team’s fate. Audubon, which defeated Boyer Valley 11-2 in a first round game Tuesday, was shut out for the sixth time on the year and finished 15-11 overall.
 Exira-EHK (21-6) snapped a brief two-game losing skid and will now face one of the teams it lost to last week, Woodbine (22-5), in Friday’s 5:00 p.m. regional semifinal back in Kimballton.
 The Tigers also won a 1-0 game Wednesday over Logan-Magnolia.
 “On to the next one. Get back to work (Thursday),” said Exira-EHK head coach Andy Nulle, prior to learning of Friday’s opponent.
 “Obviously we need to pick up [the offense]. I don’t think one run is going to be enough, whoever we play, but just come back ready to work, still play our game and just play hard. That’s all we can do.”
 Nulle expected a higher-scoring game vs. Audubon, but that didn’t change her decision to call for an aggressive small-ball play (twice) in the bottom of the first.
 After Burmeister reached on a leadoff infield single and advanced to second on an errant throw, Nulle gave the bunt sign to Alisa Partridge, who ended up flying out to center after bunting foul.
 Grubbs was also called on to bunt and got one down just a few feet in front of the plate. As Wheeler catcher Hannah Thygesen threw out Grubbs at first, Burmeister came flying around third on a set play and was called safe on her slide around Thygesen. It appeared that Thygesen may have tagged Burmeister, but the run stood and ultimately decided the outcome.
 Nulle said that she decided to be aggressive with the bunt-and-run game right away because she has regretted some missed opportunities by her team in the first inning of recent games.
 “I knew tonight I at least wanted to try (it)... just get that first run,” she said. “I feel like our defense plays a lot better when we have a lead, and to get that one in the first - it ended up being the only run we had so I guess it paid off.
 “Any way you can get a run, especially this time of the year, you’ve got to take it.”
 As it turns out, one run was all that Emgarten would need. The fourth-year varsity pitcher faced just one true “jam” after Wheeler eight and nine batters Addie Hocker and Mattie Nielsen opened the third with back-to-back singles. They advanced to second and third on a bunt, but Emgarten induced an infield pop-up for the second out and struck out Katelyn Nielsen to end the threat.
 The Wheelers had just five base runners the entire game.
 “My fastball was working well and then if they did hit it my team was right behind me,” Emgarten said.
 On one such play in the sixth, Katelyn Nielsen hit a sharp ground ball that deflected off the glove of third baseman Mollie Rasmussen to the shortstop Burmeister, who made the 5-6-3 putout look routine.
 “No, we don’t work on that one, but it was a good play and I’m happy that they got that (out),” Emgarten said.
 Emgarten was especially locked in against the Wheelers’ 1-through-4 hitters, who finished a combined 0-for-11.
 “I knew that the top four were good, so I was focused on that and it just carried on throughout the whole lineup,” she said.
 Nulle noted that keeping Audubon’s top-of-the-lineup girls off the bases helped eliminate some of the small-ball tactics the Wheelers like to employ.
 “When you don’t have runners on you can take away a little bit of their game, so I thought that was helpful... and Macy did a great job of hitting her spots and keeping them on their toes all night long,” Nulle said.
 Burmeister finished the game with two infield hits and a stolen base while Rasmussen singled up the middle for the Spartans’ third and final hit. They had four base runners in six innings.
 “I felt our girls were making contact,” Nulle said. “(Irlmeier is) a good pitcher and they were making defensive plays, we were making defensive plays and it was just a defensive game.”
 Exira-EHK and Woodbine split their two Rolling Valley Conference matchups this season, each winning on the road. The Spartans prevailed 10-0 on June 11 and the Tigers won 6-4 July 1.
 Friday’s winner will advance to Monday night’s Region 2 final vs. No. 1 Newell-Fonda (33-4) or St. Edmond (16-10) at a site to be determined. Last year, Exira-EHK lost a regional final at Newell-Fonda 10-0 and the team is now motivated to take one more step in 2021.
 First things first: Woodbine. “I think we just need to put together more hits consistently,” said Emgarten, “and just play sound defense.”

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 Semifinals - Friday, July 9
St. Edmond (16-10) at #1-ranked Newell-Fonda (33-4), 7:00 p.m.
Woodbine (22-5) at Exira-Elk Horn-Kimballton (21-6), 5:00 p.m.
Regional Final - Monday, July 12 • Site TBD, 7:00 p.m.

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