WAVERLY—An unpredictable day ended a Central College softball season where the unexpected was the norm.
After eliminating the fourth-seeded University of Dubuque 6-1 Friday morning at the American Rivers tournament, the third-seeded Dutch were rocked by the surprising sixth seed, Nebraska Wesleyan University, 9-4. The Prairie Wolves (15-20) advance to the tournament finals Saturday against fourth-seeded Luther College as the league’s top three seeds, including pod hosts Wartburg College and Coe College, were ousted.
Among the precious few things that could be counted on was the scrappy comeback effort the Dutch made in the tourney. After a 4-2 opening-round disappointment against Nebraska Wesleyan University Thursday, Central ousted second-seeded Wartburg 5-4.
Needing three more wins Friday, hopes flickered after Central’s morning win but against Nebraska Wesleyan, pitcher Sydni Huisman (sophomore, Treynor), started her fourth game in 26 hours and gave up three third-inning runs before she was lifted after the fourth inning. Things spiraled out of hand from there as Central’s bullpen surrendered four fifth-inning runs and two more in the sixth. But down 9-0 and facing an early game end due to the eight-run rule, Central forced an additional inning by clawing for three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and threatened for more before leaving the bases loaded. Nor did the Dutch go quietly in the seventh as first baseman Megan Stuhr (freshman, Sigourney) drilled an RBI double after a two-run double the previous inning. Stuhr finished as Central’s second-leading hitter for the year at .388 with a team-high eight doubles along with 20 RBIs.
“She’s matured quite a bit as a hitter,” coach George Wares said. “She came in as kind of a slugger but she’s grasping more and more about making adjustments and trying to figure out what the pitchers are doing to you.”
Megan Doty (sophomore, Grinnell) also had two hits and scored a pair of runs.
“We were out of gas and down 9-0 but just wouldn’t quit,” Wares said. “There aren’t many times you’re going to come back from that against that kind of pitching but we were giving it a pretty good shot.”
Huisman (13-11) showed signs of wear, giving up four earned runs on seven hits and a walk with one strikeout in 4.0 innings. Central was outhit 14-6.
“There was fatigue,” Wares said. “She’s honest and she said the velocity was not quite there, but she battled as much as she could.”
Central struck for three third-inning runs against Dubuque and never trailed. Left fielder Emma Johnson (sophomore, Davenport, Assumption HS) had a two-run double and third baseman Carson Fisk (sophomore, Searsboro, Lynnville-Sully HS) was 2-for-2 with two RBIs.
Huisman tossed 4.0 shutout innings, allowing six hits and no walks while fanning two. Morgan Schaben (sophomore, Portsmouth, Harlan HS) gave up a run in 2.0 innings and Skylar Sadler (sophomore, Lisbon) threw a perfect frame. Central outhit Dubuque 8-7.
To tag anything in the midst of a global pandemic as out of the ordinary is perhaps redundant but the Dutch had to overcome even more obstacles than the modified schedule which was built around 24 league games, the most in conference history. After a pair of opening-day losses Feb. 27, Central endured a 33-day pause for health reasons and was even prevented from practicing during part of that span. The Dutch were then forced to scramble into action with just one more non-conference doubleheader April 1 before getting thrown into conference play the following day, followed by an exhausting stretch of 11 games in eight days. All-conference senior shortstop Daria Parchert (senior, Illinois City, Ill., Rockridge HS) was twice on the injured list, third baseman Paige Roehlk (senior, Ankeny, Centennial HS) was sidelined and the Dutch had to play the final three games of the league tourney without their leading hitter, freshman right fielder Franie Burnett (Ankeny, Centennial HS). Burnett sparkled in her rookie season, hitting .393 with two homers along with a team-high 25 RBIs and 15 stolen bases.
“As a coach, you can’t be anything but admiring of what this team did, even to the point of the way they battled when they were down 9-0,” Wares said. “They didn’t pack it in and that’s kind of way they’ve been all year. All the things this team has had to go through. I’m sure other teams say the same thing but we’ve probably been hit as hard as any team in the country. They’ve handled it all.”
Still, the Dutch were ranked sixth in the NCAA Division III Midwest Region rankings released this week which might leave them in the conversation for an at-large tournament berth in a typical year but the 2021 field was reduced to 47 teams, leaving few at-large spots for the field which will be announced Monday. It’s only the fifth time in Wares’ unrivaled coaching career that the Dutch won’t be heading to NCAA tourney play.
It’s still a young Central roster but there were five seniors, including Sara Tallman (Pella), who started all 161 games of her storied career. A CoSIDA Academic All-America honoree, Tallman graduated a year ago but returned for an extra season when the NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility due to the abrupt ending to the 2020 season.
“She was already respected by her teammates but the respect level was elevated even more this year,” Wares said. “She put her life on hold to be a part of this team.”
A three-time all-region and all-conference pick, Tallman scored in both games, allowing her to break the school career runs mark with 153, topping Abbey Strajack’s (2012-15) record of 151. She earlier broke the career steals record with 115 and moved into third place in career hits with 153. She also ranks fifth in batting average (.377), sixth in on-base percentage (.444), eighth in stolen-base percentage (.821) and eighth in walks (63).
Other seniors include Parchert, Roehlk, designated player/first baseman Katie Banowetz (Grand Mound, Calamus-Wheatland HS), outfielderDenae Howes (Denver, Colo., Arvada HS) and outfielder Lexi DeJong (senior, Peyton, Colo., Vista Ridge HS). Banowetz, Parchert and DeJong served as team co-captains.
“Katie was selfless,” Wares said. “There were times that it seemed like she just couldn’t get on the field but she accepted her role and this year had some big at-bats for us. Lexi was there today for the whole thing (despite not being in uniform) and was a leader throughout the year as a co-captain. Denae (who transferred to Central last year) had some big hits and had a good two years. She stayed positive even though she never got to have a normal season. And Paige got better and better, especially defensively. But the best thing about Paige is how much she matured as a person, which is something you can say about all of them. They’re ready to tackle whatever’s ahead.”
Parchert, an all-region and two-time all-conference honoree, is weighing a fifth season after missing a sizable portion of 2021 as well as most of 2020.
“Whether she comes back or not, it was phenomenal what Daria was able to do despite the pause and then the injury,” Wares said. “I feel like she’s just starting to hit again. She was swinging the bat pretty well this weekend and I think that shows what she could do if she does come back.”
Those seniors helped a young squad navigate a season that brought challenges no previous team had faced.
And after completing his 37th season, Wares is already enthused about the next one.
“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “That’s why it was so important to win the Wartburg game and to get another win today, to build some confidence. But I also think the players got a pretty clear picture of what they have to work on.
“We told them afterwards, ‘OK, you’ve got all these emotions right now, is that going to be a motivator to respect this senior class and do what you need to do to get better?’ Hopefully it will because we’ve got some really good talent coming back and some really good talent coming in.”