Clinton had not hosted a postseason softball tournament contest in at least the past quarter century.
The home field advantage absent for so many years appeared to give the River Queens the momentum to stay competitive against Dubuque Hempstead in Saturday’s first-round Iowa Class 4A regional at the Durgin Complex.
At least for a couple of innings.
Coach Trina Cewe’s young River Queens almost scored the first run against the 15th-ranked Mustangs, and very nearly tied the score in the top of the second inning. But then reality set in, and Hempstead showed its power-hitting ability to end any hopes of a miracle upset by the River Queens.
Three home runs, including back-to-back jacks in the fateful third, boosted the Mustangs (36-4) to a 12-0 rout and into today’s regional semifinal against 14th-ranked North Scott in Eldridge. That winner will face either top-ranked and unbeaten Bettendorf or Dubuque Senior in the regional final at Bettendorf.
Hempstead had stroked 29 home runs coming into the game, and by the time the Mustangs left the Eagle Heights Elementary campus, Audrey Gronen added a pair of homers and Taylor Riedl contributed another to that growing list.
“I just went up there looking to hit the ball hard and get a line drive, and then it went,” said Gronen, who had a solo homer in the second and a three-run blast — both over the left-field fence — in the third. “I was just in there looking for my pitch … in the zone to drive. We’re just all working hard to get one game at a time.”
Clinton, playing as the visitor, almost got on the board first after Maddy Andresen led off with a 1-1 single up the middle. Jordan Nelson moved her to second on the grounder to third, and Andresen ran to third on a wild pitch.
Sara Judge grounded to second, and Andresen decided to take a chance and try to score. The attempt to make something happen didn’t work, as Mustangs second baseman Krista Grutz threw home to get the out.
“It was a close play,” Cewe said. “Actually, she (Andresen) took that chance on her own, and we just came up a little short. If the ball goes through, if the ball is thrown to first, we’re going. But she chose to go anyway, and sometimes is goes for you and sometimes it goes against you.”
Gronen’s soft liner, with just enough mustard and distance to clear the fence, gave the Mustangs a 2-0 lead in the second inning. The River Queens were still in it as the third inning opened, but Gronen’s three-run homer was a rocket that gave the Mustangs a 6-0 lead. Riedl’s solo homer followed Gronen’s second round-tripper to end Clinton starter Courtney Harlock’s night.
Clinton reliever Halee Vicks was unable to cool off the Hempstead bats, as the only out recorded in the inning came when River Queens catcher Jordan Nelson picked off Jordan Albrecht at third. Unfortunately for Clinton, Hempstead already had a 8-0 lead at the time, and Riedl’s RBI single to left brought in the game-winning run not long thereafter.
Aside from Andresen’s lead-off single, Clinton’s only other hit was Amanda Kristensen’s one-out bunt single in the second. Hempstead, meanwhile, came away with 14 hits, including three each by Hope Koerperich and Riedl.
Clinton (5-28), a young team with just one senior and no juniors, had been struggling with several injuries in the final weeks of the season. Cewe said that there were no substitutes available Saturday.
But, considering the circumstances, “We battled,” she said. “We were proud of what we did up at bat, and we were aggressive more so than what we have been in the past few games. We were getting on base, and I can’t hold that against our players. We forced them to make some plays.”
In addition to the pickoff throw to third, Nelson got an assist from left fielder Judge to get Grutz out trying to score in the first inning.
“Nelson had a great game of catching,” Cewe said. “She played an athletic game behind the plate, and she’s not even a catcher. Kids were stepping up tonight and doing things that we haven’t seen a lot this season. I’m real proud of how we came out this last game.”
Kristensen was the lone Clinton senior on Saturday’s roster. With just three sophomores on the team, everyone else who played this season was a freshman or eighth-grader, meaning the 2012 team will be just as youthful.
“It takes a lot of offseason preparation,” Cewe said, referring to camps, ASA and traveling teams that make good softball players. “It can’t happen in a two-month season. We always preach to these kids if you want to be good you have to work during the offseason. Some of them work offseason and some of them choose not to. We can’t force them to work offseason; they have to do it on their own.”
DUBUQUE HEMPSTEAD 12, CLINTON 0 (3 INN.)
Clinton 000 — 0 2 2
Hempstead 11(10) — 12 14 0
Courtney Harlock (L 0-7), Halee Vicks (3) and Jordan Nelson; Hannah Koerperich (W 19-2) and Hope Koerperich. Multiple hits —Hempstead (Ho. Koerperich 3, Taylor Riedl 3, Audrey Gronen). 2B — Hempstead (Lauren Kelleher). HR — Hempstead (Gronen 2, Riedl). RBIs — Hempstead (Gronen 4, Ho. Koerperich 4, Riedl 2).