Walk-off thriller sends Cyclones back to 4A final
HARLAN (July 10) -- As Kate Heithoff stepped to the plate for one of the biggest at-bats of her life, she still had tears in her eyes.
Not because she was nervous or scared for the moment, but because she was filled with pride for one of her teammates.
With Saturday’s Class 4A, Region 2 semifinal tied 3-3 in the bottom of the seventh, Harlan Community softball senior Kennedy Kjergaard, batting .209 on the year, had just electrified the H. Jack Field crowd with a one-out triple past Denison-Schleswig’s right fielder.
Following a long conference, Heithoff had her chance to extend the season as storm clouds rapidly approached from the northwest.
“I was nervous, but most of my tears were (because) I was just so proud of Kennedy for getting a hit... Her getting that triple was just awesome to see,” Heithoff said.
“I kind of calmed myself down in the box by just saying, ‘You’re going to do this for your seniors because you don’t want this to be their last game and you want to win for them.’”
After fouling off a few pitches, Heithoff, a junior, worked the count full against Monarch freshman pitcher Claire Leinen and eventually won the battle, guiding a looping liner over the first baseman - just inside or right on the foul line - for a game-winning, walk-off RBI single.
The thrilling 4-3 victory earned the Cyclones (26-11 overall) a spot in Tuesday’s 7 p.m. regional final against either top-ranked Winterset (32-7) or Creston (20-11). Unlike HCHS and Denison, the Huskies and Panthers did not move up their Saturday start time and were rained out - postponed until Monday night.
The Cyclones, meanwhile, celebrated their win at about 2:30 p.m., starting with a big hug shared by Kate Heithoff and her mom - first base coach Ann Heithoff.
“I was already overwhelmed with emotions in the dugout because I was like, ‘This could be it. Seven years of playing together could be done today,’” Kate Heithoff said. “And then seeing that hit go fair I was like, ‘Please don’t call it foul.’ They called it fair and all of my emotions from before the at-bat... I just started crying because I was so excited... Having my mom on the first base side was amazing. Being able to just go and hug her instantly was one of the greatest feelings ever.”
Kjergaard, the Cyclones’ number nine batter, had already had a pretty good day prior to her seventh-inning triple. She drew a leadoff walk in the third and scored on Julia Schechinger’s single to put Harlan up 2-1. She grounded out sharply in her second at-bat, so Kjergaard came to the plate with a mix of confidence and nerves with one out in the seventh.
“It was already a pretty intense game in the first place, so going up to bat in the seventh inning with the score tied... it made me really nervous, honestly, because I knew I had some pressure on me to deliver,” Kjergaard said. “I just kind of went up there and took a deep breath and took everything I learned over the past four years and put it all together.”
Kjergaard added: “Usually by the third time you’re up to bat, it’s easier to hit off a person because you know what they’re throwing and you know what to expect most of the time, so I felt more confident going up there. Even though I had some pressure, I knew that I could hit off her and that everything would be fine.”
Kjergaard’s sinking liner to right-center bounced in front of D-S right fielder Kennedy Marten - who was on the dead run - and deflected off her glove and rolled to the fence. Kjergaard picked up head coach Toshia Kasperbauer waving her toward third and turned on the jets for an easy triple.
“I looked over at Toshia and she was bringing me already when I was halfway to second so I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome. I just hit a triple. How incredible is that? The last inning - to help us score,” Kjergaard recalled. “It was really great. I felt really happy in that moment.”
A few moments later, Kjergaard was on the move again, this time hustling down the third base line to score the winning run.
“It was just, ‘Oh my God, we did it,’” Kjergaard said. “I knew that when I got on third (Kate) would come through for us and get me home, and it was just an amazing feeling.”
Amidst the joy, jubilation and tears Saturday, there was also a feeling of relief as the Cyclones dodged a bullet against a Denison team they beat 11-3 and 11-1 during the regular season.
The Monarchs (20-15) certainly showed up to play in the regional rematch two days after blowing out Lewis Central 14-0 in their first round game.
“A huge sigh of relief - oh my gosh,” Coach Kasperbauer said. “I was on the edge of my seat the whole game... It’s always tough to beat a team three times in a row. I don’t care who it is, it’s tough to beat them three times... We knew we were going to have our work cut out for us today, and they played a nice game.
“Defensively we made a couple mistakes but we came back and took care of business when we needed to.”
With HCHS perhaps battling some early-game jitters, Denison took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first after Cyclone senior pitcher Emily Brouse walked two of the first three batters and Kiana Schulz delivered an RBI single.
Brouse escaped a bases-loaded jam in the second inning, then retired the Monarchs in order in the third and fourth as the Cyclone offense began chipping away.
Brouse and Jordan Heese opened the second inning with singles and Madison Schumacher’s RBI ground out tied the score at 1-1.
Schechinger’s two-out RBI hit put HCHS ahead in the third and Schumacher’s RBI double to right made it 3-1 after four.
But the Monarchs weren’t going away, scoring two runs in the top of the fifth to tie the game. Paige Kastner opened the inning with a double and Kambri Brodersen reached on her second infield hit of the day after third baseman Aurora Miller took too much time checking Kastner on a ground ball to the left side.
A throwing error on Brodersen’s steal of second allowed Kastner to score and Schulz’s one-out RBI single tied things up.
Brouse (14-7) stepped up big to retire the last eight Monarchs of the game and give the Cyclones time to win with just one run. Brouse struck out eight, walked two and allowed six hits. She also went 2-for-3 at the plate to lead Harlan’s seven-hit attack.
Leinen (18-13), Denison’s promising young lefty, walked only two batters but did not have a strikeout.
“Claire threw a nice game. We knew she was going to throw us outside. We were prepared for that,” Kasperbauer said.
“We were a little uneasy before the game. We had to get some nerves calmed down... I think we started out the game a little rough just because we had so many nerves. I think finally we started to settle down a little bit.”
Kasperbauer was certainly pleased to see Kjergaard and Heithoff step up when it counted the most.
“Kennedy needed that,” she said. “And not every person on the team would have been able to get a triple out of that, but she’s got speed so she was able to go ahead and get around the bases.
“Kate was a little nervous at the beginning of that at-bat... But I’ll tell you what: she stepped up there and we needed that.”
Class 4A, Region 2 Softball Tournament
First Round Games - Thursday, July 8
Creston 8, Glenwood 3 Denison-Schleswig 14, Lewis Central 0 (4)
Regional Semifinals - Saturday, July 10
Harlan Community 4, Denison-Schleswig 3
Creston (20-11) at #1 Winterset (32-7) -- postponed until Monday, July 12, 7:00 p.m.
Regional Final - Tuesday, July 13
Harlan Community (26-11) vs. Winterset or Creston (site TBD), 7:00 p.m.
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