As I am writing this Monday, the Northeast softball team has yet to make its state softball debut.
By the time many of you read this column, newspaper in hand on Wednesday, the Rebels will be a day removed from their 2A state quarterfinal. And, depending on what time you do read the paper and their previous result, might be in the middle of a semifinal clash.
Ah, the strange timing issues of a mailed newspaper.
Northeast’s state softball debut will also be my state softball debut. The Rebels are the area’s first softball squad to make it to Fort Dodge since Central DeWitt finished fifth in 2005.
That summer I was preparing for my sophomore year of college and while the details of what I was doing 15 years ago are cloudy, I can promise you one thing: I had more hair.
This is the 50th year the state softball tournament will be hosted by the Harlan and Hazel Rogers Sports Complex in Fort Dodge. I know the place well without even having stepped a foot inside, thanks to a collection of talented distance runners and golfers. The Rogers Sports Complex is just two miles south of the Lakeside Municipal Golf Course, home to the state cross country meet and, in 2018, the site of the Central DeWitt boys golf team’s second straight state title. I’ve driven by it multiple times. Tuesday, just like the Rebels, I get to experience it.
The Central Springs program that Northeast faces in its state debut is a little over a decade old — its first season came in 2008 after the North Central and Nora Springs-Rock Falls school districts entered a whole-grade agreement (they eventually merged in 2011) — but certainly holds the state experience edge.
The Panthers are making their seventh appearance at the state tournament and are on a run of six-straight state bids. They were fourth in 2018, but will be motivated after going winless at last year’s state tournament.
Members of the Top of Iowa Conference — an 18-team league that is divided into two divisions, the Panthers won the East — Central Springs went 17-3 this summer with the three setbacks coming to Winterset and Clarksville, state qualifiers in Class 4A and 1A respectively, and a 5A Ankeny squad that finished 19-11.
The Panthers boast great power — they lead all 2A qualifiers with 21 home runs; a combined 13 of which have come from sophomores Madisyn Kelley (eight) and Kaylea Fessler (five). That same one-two punch also leads the team in hits, RBIs and batting average.
Freshman Cooper Klaahsen has started 19 of Central Springs’ 20 games and boasts both a 1.84 ERA and 111 strikeouts, while Fessler has usually come in to finish games. She has pitched in 19 contests and rung up 39 batters of her own, while holding opposing hitters to a .193 batting average. Overall, teams have hit just .199 against Panthers pitching.
The Rebels will counter on the mound with their own young ace, eighth-grader Madison Kluever.
No player among the 2A qualifiers has thrown more innings than Kluever, who has racked up 119 in her first year. She also ranks among the class leaders in strikeouts (73) and walks allowed (16), and is riding the momentum of a three-hit, nine-strikeout regional final victory over Iowa City Regina.
Kluever is backed by a Northeast defense that leads all class qualifiers with a .960 fielding percentage. The Rebels are second among qualifiers in total put-outs (384) and third in defensive assists (165).
Long known as a strong offensive team. The Rebels have continued that tradition this summer and are second among qualifiers with a team batting average of .410. Senior catcher Bree Mangelsen leads the way, batting .538 with a team-high 13 doubles and 30 RBIs. Junior shortstop Alexis Ehlers is also batting over .500 (.517), while three other Rebels — Claire Abbott, Valerie Spooner and Audrey Morris — are hitting better than .400. All told, every Northeast player that has more than 50 at-bats this summer is hitting better than .300.
And the Rebels are more than capable of manufacturing runs. They have put down 44 sacrifice bunts and have stolen 39 bases.
A win Tuesday could set up a semifinal showdown with the reigning state champion: North Linn (23-0), which faces off with Ridge View (11-8) in the first 2A quarterfinal Tuesday. The other four teams: second-seeded Louisa-Muscatine (18-5), seventh-seeded Underwood (14-4), third-seeded Ogden (19-3) and sixth-seeded Mount Ayr (10-4) will play Tuesday afternoon.
The Lynx enter the tournament on a 30-game winning streak that dates back to July of last year and have both the top batting average (.418) and top ERA among 2A qualifiers.
On the bottom half of the bracket, Louisa-Muscatine, the 2018 state champion, is back in the Class 2A field after finishing as the runner-up in 3A a year ago.
The Falcons might meet one of the state’s all-time best home run hitters in the semifinal. Ogden senior Denali Loecker leads all of Class 2A with 10 home runs, but that is not much of a surprise. After all, Loecker hit an eye-popping 22 homers as a junior and enters the tournament with 66 career dingers to her name, just five back of the state record of 71.