Just mighty enough

FORT DODGE – The first-round win that eluded the last two East Marshall softball teams tried to slip away from these Mustangs too.

But a little bit of luck and a whole lot of clutch led to a record-setting win this program has been longing for.

Ashley Allen hit her third home run in four postseason games, senior designated player Sophia Grego blasted her first career round-tripper and second-ranked East Marshall made just enough defensive plays to spoil Mid-Prairie’s upset bid and win Monday’s Class 3A quarterfinal, 4-3, at the Iowa Girls’ High School State Softball Tournament at Rogers Sports Complex.

The Mustangs – winners of 28 straight – will meet No. 9 and defending 3A state champion Bondurant-Farrar (21-13) in Thursday’s 7 p.m. semifinal. The title game is Friday at 2:30 p.m.

State qualifiers for the third year in a row, the Mustangs (33-3) finally got the opening-round victory that had escaped them previously and set the school’s single-season wins record in the process.

Grego’s towering home run left of straightaway center field on the first pitch of the bottom of the fifth inning gave East Marshall a 4-1 lead, and the insurance came in handy when unranked but undaunted Mid-Prairie (25-11) pushed two runs across in the top of the seventh.

But the Golden Hawks’ potential tying run got caught trying to take an extra base on Amber Kral’s RBI single. Lexi Duwa, the fastest player on Mid-Prairie’s squad, was on her way to third base when East Marshall junior pitcher Mariah Fritz cut off left fielder Madisen Hinegardner’s throw home.

The Mustangs finished off Duwa in a brief rundown with Haley Long tagging her out back at second base, forcing Kral to retreat to first with cleanup hitter and Fritz’s counterpart Taylor Kurtz at the plate. Fritz, though obviously tiring from the heat and the building pressure of the moment, got Kurtz looking for the final out to seal East Marshall’s first opening-round triumph at state since 1995.

“It’s scary because it goes through your head that if you lose, we can’t do any better than fifth,” said Allen, a junior catcher. “But now we think we have most of our emotions out and we’re going to play to win like we have been and hopefully we get all the way there.”

This marked the third year in a row the two teams met in the state tournament. Fritz tossed a six-hit shutout for a 3-0 win in the fifth-place game in 2012, but she took the loss in last year’s 8-3 defeat in the consolation semifinals.

“I’m tired of looking at them right now, no offense to them,” East Marshall coach Jary Hoskey said of the Golden Hawks. “They’re a class act. There’s some awfully good teams here, we’re just fortunate enough to be in the top four.

“I like our chances coming back up there Thursday. We’ll see what we’re made of.”

The Golden Hawks, who knocked off top-ranked Benton Community in the regional finals, seemed set on stunning yet another high-end foe. Yet it took Mid-Prairie five innings to even get a hit against Fritz. Ali Naylor’s leadoff double in the fifth fell to the turf between three East Marshall defenders and broke up the no-no, and Alex Rath’s two-out single drove in courtesy runner Maddi Zahradnek to slim East Marshall’s advantage to 3-1.

Grego, who missed three weeks and 16 games to a torn quadricep muscle in her leg, got the pitch she was looking for to kick off the bottom of the fifth.

“Last year I didn’t do very well here (at state), so going out like this is the most amazing feeling I could ever have in my life for this being my last year,” she said. “It’s amazing. I’m so excited.

“It was my second time up to bat and the first pitch was right down the middle, and I’m just like, ‘I got this,’ and bang, and it went.”

And it later proved to be the game-winning run.

“How fitting for her, bless her heart,” Hoskey said of Grego, one of two seniors (Long). “She never missed a practice … and she’s worked her way back, been in the weight room, stretching and lifting and running. What a great tribute to her to hit a home run at the state tournament.”

East Marshall made the first dent on the scoreboard in the bottom of the first, as Fritz flipped a single to right to open the frame. Bobbi Amendt sacrificed her courtesy runner Mackenzie Andrews over to second, and Taylor Fricke’s two-out, bloop single down the left-field line plated the game’s first tally.

Fritz hammered a one-out double over the pulled-in outfielders’ heads in the third, and Allen drove her team-leading ninth home run over the fence in right-center field to make it 3-0 Mustangs.

Allen, who also homered in each of the first two rounds of regional play, added a sixth-inning single to finish off her two-hit day.

“It feels good, when you see the pitch and you know it, and you hit it and it goes over is one of the best feelings, especially at state,” Allen said. “It’s great to get that first (win), and we decided once we got that first one that we’re just going all the way with it.”

Both teams finished with six hits, but East Marshall’s big boppers delivered where Fritz refused to let Mid-Prairie’s standout sluggers hurt her. She carefully pitched around Kral – who entered hitting .574 with12 doubles, 10 home runs and 55 RBIs – until she had to come across the plate in the top of the seventh.

After singles by Chelsea Kral, Rath and Duwa got one run across and brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the person of Amber Kral, Fritz kept Mid-Prairie’s top home run threat in the park. A hard-hit single to left plated Rath, but Mariah Fritz intercepted the throw home and flipped to her younger sister Maci Fritz at third.

One more throw to Long erased Duwa’s speed at second as the potential tying run and helped the Mustangs move within an out of the semifinals.

“Lexi is our fastest runner by far, she hasn’t been thrown out on the bases all year, and nine out of 10 times she’s going to cruise into third,” said Mid-Prairie coach Kara Beatty. “It just so happened the throw was cut off and she just got caught out to dry. It just didn’t fall our way in that situation.”

And Mariah Fritz, who earlier this season passed the East Marshall’s single-season strikeout record, got Kurtz looking to end the game.

Prior to that, Fritz got plenty of help from her defense. Walking Amber Kral three times and Emma Troyer twice made for a few sticky situations, but a lunging catch of a line drive by Maci Fritz ended the sixth inning. Fricke snared a line drive with Rath on third to end the fifth as well.

“Getting the first one feels so awesome,” said Mariah Fritz, a junior. “It takes a lot of pressure off, winning that first one, and we played really well as a team. Every play it was a team effort.”

It will take another all-around performance for the Mustangs to make it to the title game for the first time since 1994. Bondurant-Farrar whipped No. 13 West Burlington-Notre Dame 9-4, scoring seven times in the first inning, and beat East Marshall 2-1 back in the first game this season in Conrad. All three runs in that game were solo homers.

East Marshall has lost its previous four meetings with Bondurant-Farrar, last defeating the Bluejays 2-0 in 2008 during Marshalltown’s Bobcat Classic.

“The girls have been resilient all season long,” said Hoskey. “We found a way to win somehow, some way, and I like our work ethic, I like our practices, and hopefully we’ll have a good turnout come Thursday.”