Ballard just missed returning to state

Despite not repeating as state champions, the Ballard softball team stood tall in 2013.

The Bombers withstood a grueling schedule to win 25 games and produce the best Raccoon River Conference record in school history.

Coming off a 35-9 campaign in 2012 that resulted in the first state championship in school history Ballard was a marked team in 2013. Going from the hunter to the hunted, the Bombers faced their opponents’ best shot almost every night.

In addition to having to deal with high expectations and an always loaded RRC, Ballard had to move up from Class 3A to 4A this year. The Bombers ended up playing a whopping 17 games against ranked opponents and they drew a very tough regional bracket.

Despite all of the obstacles, Ballard still managed to finish 25-11 overall, place third in the RRC with a 12-4 record and reach the regional finals.

"Considering the fact that everyone in the program was traveling uncharted waters, I am proud of the way this team played," Ballard head coach Staci Sniezek said. "In the end, the outcome was not what we had set our sights on in the beginning of the year. But we learned a lot in the process of the season and the players always put the team in position to win."

A main goal for Ballard this season was to contend for the RRC title after going 13-5 in the conference last year.

Even though the Bombers returned several starters from last year’s team, the challenge was a monumental one. The conference featured three other teams that finished ranked in the top eight of 4A this season, and another team wound up rated in the top 10 in 3A.

Things started slow for Ballard in conference play as the Bombers began the season 2-3 with losses to Dallas Center-Grimes, top-10 traditional power Carlisle and revenge-minded Winterset. Ballard swept Winterset a year ago.

The Bombers two conference victories during that early stretch came against Carroll and a strong Bondurant-Farrar team that Ballard defeated in 3A state semifinals last year.

But the Bombers started finding more success in conference play in early June. Beginning on June 10, Ballard won three consecutive conference road games in a week; downing Adel-Desoto-Minburn, Carroll and the big one – a 1-0 triumph over then-No.1 and eventual 4A state champion DCG on June 17.

And the win streak wasn’t over. Ballard whipped another No. 1 team on June 26 by trouncing Winterset by a 4-0 score in Huxley, and the Bombers followed with a win at Perry and then completed a season sweep of a Bondurant-Farrar team that went on to claim the 3A state title.

Ballard also defeated ADM on June 1 to set up a showdown with Carlisle June 8 in Huxley. The game was for second place in the RRC, but Ballard’s momentum ran dry as Carlisle - the eventual 4A state runner-up - snapped the Bombers’ 10-game conference win streak by handing them a 5-2 loss.

"Our main focus was within our conference, because we knew from there would be the best softball we would see to prepare us for the jump to 4A," Sniezek said. "Beating DCG at their place changed our entire outlook on things in our conference. After three early losses, we clawed our way back into the race."

But it wasn’t just RRC competition that challenged Ballard. The Bombers had to be at their best nearly every night because they also faced seven ranked non-conference teams during the regular season.

Ballard faced 1A power Lynnville-Sully twice, a Martensdale St. Marys team rated No. 1 in 1A, then top-15 2A schools AGWSR and North Polk and eventual 5A state champion Dowling Catholic and third-place finisher Ankeny. The Bombers split with Lynnville-Sully and defeated Ankeny and Martensdale St. Marys.

The Bombers ended the regular season ranked ninth in 4A. They received a first-round bye in regional play, but had their work cut out for them in the semifinals and finals.

In order to reach the 4A regional championship game, the Bombers had to get by 12th-rated Webster City in the semifinals at home. Ballard did just that, downing the Lynx by a 4-1 score.

That set up a confrontation with 11th-rated Waverly-Shell Rock in Iowa Falls for the right to go to state. That game saw a role reversal from a year ago.

The Bombers were the hot team in last year’s 10-4 3A regional final win over MOC-Floyd Valley to earn their first trip to state en route to winning the title, but this time Waverly-Shell Rock had all the momentum going its way as Ballard suffered a 3-1 loss to end its dream repeating as a state champion.

Behind a veteran team that included eight returning starters off last year’s team, Ballard scored 184 runs – an average of 5.1 per game. The Bombers hit .317 with on-base and slugging averages of .389 and .456 respectively and they totaled 81 extra-base hits, including 24 home runs.

Last year Ballard averaged 5.4 runs per game with a .337 batting average and a total of 30 home runs in eight more games.

Defensively, this year’s Bomber unit had a .939 fielding average with 61 errors in 997 chances. Last season Ballard posted a .962 fielding average with 47 errors in 1,240 chances.

Juniors Kenzie Ihle, Brooke Mallon and Annie Stolte were the heart of the offense for Ballard this season.

Ihle batted from the clean-up spot and she had a monster junior campaign at the plate.

After hitting .330 with seven doubles, four home runs and 30 RBI last year, Ihle upped her performance level to hit .412 with a school-record 11 home runs and 30 RBI this season. Ihle recorded .515 on-base and .847 slugging averages and she also hit four doubles and scored 11 runs this season.

Mallon also stepped up big this season after moving to the No. 3 spot in the batting order. Mallon raised her average from .266 in 2012 to .327 in 2013 as she also upped her on-base and slugging averages from .365 and .431 to .431 and .510 respectively.

Mallon smacked six doubles and four home runs this year and she finished with 17 RBI and seven runs. Mallon was also an awesome weapon behind the plate, recording a .971 fielding average and throwing out an impressive nine base runners.

Stolte battled a knee injury in the first part of the season, but she still ended up with huge numbers in 2013.

At the plate Stolte hit .379 with a .467 OBA and a .602 slugging average. She hit seven doubles, two triples and four home runs and finished with 28 runs and 21 RBI batting primarily as the Bomber leadoff hitter.

Stolte also delivered a .926 fielding average with 52 assists and 36 putouts as the defensive anchor of the infield at shortstop.

Senior outfielder Sydney Fisher was another one of the top returning players from last year and she was a big weapon, hitting in the second spot of the batting order.

Fisher posted .370 batting and .419 on-base averaged with two doubles and she led the team in runs and steals with 30 and 12 respectively. In the field Fisher also helped out at shortstop when Stolte was down and even saw some time on the mound; she was fantastic no matter where she was positioned, committing just two errors and totaling 26 putouts and 19 assists.

Sophomore Alex Petersen, juniors Ellie Godwin and Sheridan Gealow, and seniors Katie Ahrenholtz and Megan Spear were the other veteran performers for Ballard this season.

After spending most of last year at designated hitter, Petersen filled the void at second base left by departed all-state player Grace Hall and performed admirably in the spot. Petersen hit .279 with three doubles, one home run, 18 runs and 13 RBI and she made 58 assists with eight putouts in the field.

Godwin made 24 putouts against just one error and she had an impressive six assists from left field. At the plate she gave the team some punch at the bottom of the order, hitting .261 with six doubles, 17 runs and 11 steals batting from the No. 9 spot.

Gealow made 37 assists and 22 putouts at third base. She saw limited time at the plate, but still managed to hit .280 with one home run and three RBI in 25 at-bats.

Ahrenholtz hit .266 with six doubles, 17 runs and 11 RBI. She also had a solid .976 fielding average with 234 putouts and 11 assists at first base.

Spear had 23 putouts, one assist and just one error as an outstanding center fielder. She had one double and seven RBI in 65 at-bats on offense.

Sophomore Ellen Huxford was the top newcomer for Ballard. Stepping into the designated hitter spot, she hit .402 with a .620 slugging average and totaled a team-high 12 doubles along with one triple, two home runs, 18 runs and 14 RBI.

Gabie Doud and Olivia Hall made valuable contributions as freshman during the season.

Doud was a big weapon as a pinch hitter. She posted a .308 batting average, a .500 slugging average and compiled two doubles, one home run and five runs and RBI apiece in 26 at-bats.

Hall was a courtesy runner most of the season. She proved dangerous on the base paths, scoring 18 runs and stealing seven bases.

Sydne Struve and Madison McInroy were two more freshmen who provided big contributions on the bases. McInroy scored five runs and stole three bases, and Struve crossed the plate 10 times.

On the mound Ihle carried the bulk of the load. But freshman Emi Bendler was also productive, helping Ihle get through an early injury.

Ihle threw 202 innings and went 23-10 with an impressive 0.69 earned-run average, 205 strikeouts and 48 walks. Last year she finished 24-6 with a 1.20 ERA, 133 strikeouts and 52 walks in 197 2/3 innings after sharing time with senior Kayla Bruns.

Bendler posted a 2-1 record with a 2.33 ERA, 12 strikeouts and eight walks in 30 innings. Fisher also threw two innings and she had a 3.50 ERA.

It won’t be easy to replace the talent and speed of Fisher and Spear in the outfield or the steady of play of Ahrenholtz at first base next season.

"Our senior class has been part of successive top-three finishes in the conference, a state title and four winning seasons in a row," Sniezek said. "Not too shabby!"

But falling short of reaching state this season gives Ballard plenty of added incentive to prepare extra hard for 2014. With the dominant core of Ihle, Mallon and Stolte returning, plus several other key players coming, back the Bombers are clearly eying a return to Fort Dodge.

"Next year is going to be a year of players being fired up to take the field again," Sniezek said. "The loss to Waverly was very painful for the team and with a large group of seniors next year, it will not be hard to motivate these girls. Our goals will be the same, and with DCG leaving our conference for the Little Hawkeye Conference, we expect to be in the race for a conference title with Carlisle and Winterset. The players are fired up to work hard and chase some more dreams."