By John Burbridge firstname.lastname@example.org
CHARLES CITY — The consensus among Charles City Comet fans coming in early to stake their bleacher seats and lawn-chair spots for Tuesday’s Class 4A-Region 8 softball championship game was that a win and berth to the State Championships would be nice.
“But let’s not make things too exciting like they were last game.”
In that last game, the Comets rallied for two runs in the bottom of the seventh to stave off elimination with a 2-1 semifinal win against a stubborn Mason City team.
Unranked Center Point-Urbana, who had upset Waverly-Shell Rock in its semifinal, could have been be the anxiety-free tonic the Comets — or more like the Comet fans needed for a smoother latter-half path to Fort Dodge.
But don’t look now! Incoming!
In the top of the first inning with no outs and two on after CPU’s leadoff hitter Olivia Brecht started the game with a double followed by Reagan Schutte walking on four straight pitches, Payton Kriegel lifted a deep fly ball with 3-run dinger written all over it.
Hold the drama, you say?
Comet center fielder Payton Reams hauled in the long out at the warning track, but the Stormin’ Pointers eventually scored a run to take a 1-0 lead. And they were hitting the ball hard against Comet ace Sami Heyer.
At least they were in the first inning.
“But my team helps me a lot … they’re always talking to me in the field and talking to me in the dugout,” said Heyer, who returned to her dominant self while yielding no more runs and just one more hit after the first inning while her teammates did the rest on way to a 6-1 regional championship win.
Charles City, ranked No. 4 in Class 4A in the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union’s final rankings after several weeks on top, will be making its third-straight trip the Softball State Championships, which start next week in Fort Dodge.
Counting when the IGHSAU had a fall softball season, this will be the Comets’ 27th state appearance — the same number as New York Yankee World Series titles.
“The pressure was on us all year long,” said Charles City head coach Brian Bohlen, whose team improved to 33-6 for the season. “Two years ago, we kind of came out of nowhere and finished strong at the end. Last year, we were ranked maybe 14th at one time before we upset (No. 1) Benton in the regional final.
“This year there was a lot of pressure on the players … the coaching staff … to get down there again. Our team just handles pressure well. We’ve been facing it all year.”
Against CPU senior pitcher Natalea Cook, the Comets were hitting the ball well but — like in the Mason City game — were finding fielders competent enough to handle their shots.
But while nursing a 2-1 lead going into the bottom of the fourth, Charles City’s offensive pyrotechs — which incidentally had been somewhat dormant during the week after the Fourth of July — came back to life.
Incoming freshman Ashlyn Hoeft doubled home Lisabeth Fiser on a long fly ball that would have cleared the fence had it not been for CPU left fielder Logan Neal getting a glove on the ball.
But when next batter Tayler Schmidt turned on a Cook pitch, no one was getting a glove on this one — if they did, it would have likely been ripped off the hand — as the Comet senior’s team-leading 11th homer of the season put Charles City up, 5-1.
Hoeft later hit a solo shot — her fourth homer of the season — to add another run in the sixth inning.
“I knew it was coming … we were getting some good swings,” Bohlen said.
Schmidt, who played her last game at Sportsmen’s Park, also had a single.
Madeline Peters, another Sportsmen’s Park departing senior, had two hits including a double.
Though Heyer held the Stormin’ Pointers scoreless after the first, she did have to pitch herself out of several threats.
In the third after the Comets tied the score at 1, Brecht doubled deep to left field to lead off the inning. But Heyer proceeded to get Schutte — who led the Stormin’ Pointers with 12 home runs this season — to pop up before striking out Neal and Cook in order.
“I just try to pitch the same way with runners on like I do with no runners on,” said Heyer, who struck out eight while winning her 23rd game of the year.
Last season after upsetting No. 1-ranked Benton in the regional final, the Comets continued to play the spoiler role at the state tourney when defeating No. 2-seed Fairfield in extra innings in the opening rounds before placing fourth in the Class 4A bracket.
In 2016, Charles City lost its first state tourney game before bouncing back to win the consolation bracket for fifth place.