It may not have had a satisfactory ending, but the 2014 season was another successful campaign by the Ballard softball program.
For the third year in a row Ballard eclipsed 25 victories, placed in the top half of a powerful Raccoon River Conference and advanced to the regional finals. The Bombers were denied a trip to state for the second year in a row, but it didn’t take away from the continued growth of a program that has established itself as a forced to be reckoned with in Class 4A.
"We had the fewest number of summer ball losses since records were kept starting in 1976 and the second-best winning percentage ever for Ballard," Ballard head coach Staci Sniezek said. "It’s quite an accomplishment, considering the competition of this season and tradition of Ballard softball. There were a lot of things out of the team’s control being thrown at them all season, and they never left the path they were on. The team exemplified fun: fun to watch, fun to root for, fun to coach and fun to be a part of something so special."
Ballard’s 27-7 overall record topped the 25-11 mark of a year ago and just missed the 35-9 record of its 2012 3A state championship team for the winningest record under Sniezek.
The Bombers also finished 10-4 in a Raccoon River Conference dubbed by Sniezek as "the toughest conference in the state, in my opinion." That placed Ballard second in the conference behind Carlisle (12-2) and tied the school’s best finish in the conference.
A big key to the success was consistency; they didn’t lose back-to-back games all season.
Ballard opened the season winning eight of its first 11 games. The Bombers’ losses were a 3-1 decision at eventual 4A state champion Dallas Center-Grimes on May 29, a 7-0 home loss to Carlisle team that finished third in 4A and a 3-1 setback against Winterset at home.
On June 12 the Bombers began a five-game winning streak with an 8-1 victory over RRC rival Perry. The Bombers also whipped Colfax-Mingo, Roland-Story, Sergeant Bluff-Luton and Van Meter during the streak, which was ended with a 2-0 home loss against Adel-Desoto-Minburn on June 16.
On June 17 Ballard swept Carroll in a RRC doubleheader, then the Bombers went 1-1 at the Kiwanis Invitational in Roland June 21. Ballard lost to Mount Vernon by an 8-6 score, but defeated eventual 1A third-place finisher AGWSR.
The victory over AGWSR sparked an impressive 10-game winning streak for the Bombers that took them right up to their last two games of the regular season. Legendary Ballard softball coach Gary Telford - whom Sniezek replaced in 2002 - passed away during that stretch, making the Bombers’ tremendous play even more meaningful.
"The team won 10 straight while dealing with the toughest of circumstances within our program," Sniezek said. "Those are huge lessons for these young players that they can recall and use later in life."
Ballard picked up its most impressive win of the season during that 10-game streak. On June 25, the Bombers traveled to Carlisle and picked up their first victory over the RRC and traditional state powerhouse with an 8-4 triumph.
"The biggest highlight was beating Carlisle at their place, which just doesn’t happen often," Sniezek said. "That win was the most fun to be a part of - seeing the kids so happy and executing their best against a top-ranked rival. That was only two days after Telf’s funeral and such an emotional night for everyone."
Ballard’s winning streak ended with a 1-0 loss to ADM on July 7 at Adel. The Bombers came back to knock off 5A school Ames in their regular season finale, 2-1 at Huxley on July 9.
The postseason began with the 4A regional semifinals after Ballard received a first-round bye. The Bombers took on Winterset and edged their RRC rivals in a 5-4 thriller to make it to the regional finals for the third year in a row.
In the regional championship game, Ballard faced off against Norwalk at Norwalk. The Bombers were anxious to atone for a regional final loss to Waverly-Shell Rock from the previous season, but Norwalk had other ideas.
The Warriors hammered Ballard with seven runs in the first inning. The Bombers outplayed Norwalk over the final six innings, but the deficit was too big to make up; they ended up on the short end of a 7-3 decision to painfully fall one win shy of making state for the second year in a row.
"In the end it came down to one inning against a good Norwalk team that sealed our fate," Sniezek said. "But there were so many good other good innings (during the season) that made this group and these seniors a legacy. They deserved to be playing in the state tourney, but a lot of teams said that after the regional finals. There are so many good teams in 4A that you have to be on the other end of some fortunate breaks, for everyone else is working just as hard as you and deserves it just as much."
For the season Ballard scored 237 runs on a .365 team batting average with 63 steals, 42 doubles, one triple and 23 home runs. The Bombers posted a .434 on-base average and .491 slugging average.
On defense Ballard yielded 75 runs - just 36 earned - with a .162 opponent batting average, 1.18 earned-run average and .952 fielding average.
The senior trio of Kenzie Ihle, Brooke Mallon and Annie Stolte capped an amazing run with tremendous final campaigns. Ellie Godwin also stepped up big and Sheridan Gealow made valuable contributions in their final seasons for Ballard.
On offense Ihle hit .485 with a .540 OBA and .832 slugging average. She recorded 11 doubles, eight home runs and 45 RBI.
Ihle also made just three errors in 69 chances with 52 putouts in the field.
On the mound Ihle went 26-7 with a 1.10 ERA, 181 strikeouts, 80 walks and seven hit batsmen in 203 ? innings.
Mallon hit .305 with a .342 OBA and .429 slugging average. She produced four home runs, one double and 23 RBI.
In the field Mallon was one of the best catchers in the state - recording just three errors in 233 chances with 20 assists. She also threw out an impressive 12 runners on the season.
Stolte wasn’t 100 percent during the season, coming back from a knee injury. But she still had a great final campaign, hitting .372 with a .459 OBA and .511 slugging average.
Stolte finished with 10 doubles, one home run, 26 runs, 16 RBI, 13 walks and eight steals in eight attempts. She also posted a .964 fielding average at shortstop with only three errors in 84 chances, and 46 assists and 35 putouts on the year.
Godwin emerged as one of the top No. 9 hitters in the state. She hit .346 with a .593 slugging average, six doubles, one triple and four home runs.
Godwin also had 27 runs and 18 RBI and she stole four bases. On defense, she had three errors in 33 chances with 27 putouts and three assists in right field.
Gealow manned third base for most of the season and she had 46 putouts and 42 assists with eight errors in 96 chances. Gealow also showed some spark at the plate by hitting .286 with 13 walks, a .464 OBA and .452 slugging average, four doubles, one home run, 11 runs and 12 RBI.
Sam McInroy - Ballard’s other senior - had one hit in five at-bats.
"There have been a lot of great senior groups in my time here, but up until now none of them have impacted the program as much as these six," Sniezek said. "Just in looking at the number of games they’ve played since eighth grade at the varsity level; the record books - team records, conference standings and a state championship in 2012. They will be the first to tell you it took a lot of great people around them, but sometimes you have a group that has some things you cannot teach - those intangibles. They got better every season and within every season. They dedicated their time to softball, but also other sports and activities. They loved to compete, hated losing and never accepted anything but the best from themselves and each other, yet at the same time they had the best approach to life, family and their teammates."
"Ellie had game-winning hits, Annie had diving catches, Kenzie hit long home runs, Sheridan made every throw and Brooke picked off runners in ways no one will ever forget," Sniezek added. "Some of the things they could do were amazing to watch and the fans got to see some of the best at their positions in the state. They are on a first-name basis with all the youth softball players in the community and heroes to many."
The top underclassmen for Ballard included juniors Gabbie Scherle, Alex Petersen, Ellen Huxford and Mikayla Jones, sophomores Olivia Hall, Sydne Struve, Kennedy Newell, Madison McInroy and Emi Bendler and freshmen Abby Carlin, Jenna Moody and Abbey Kahler.
Scherle was a newcomer to the program and her addition gave Ballard a huge spark.
Scherle was a devastating weapon as a slap hitter at the top of the order. She hit a team-high .543 with 10 walks and 15 RBI and she led the team in runs (36) and steals (27). She was also one of the top center fielders in 4A, committing just two errors and making 27 putouts and two assists.
Petersen spent time at second base, designated hitter and in the outfield. She posted a .956 fielding average with 24 putouts and 19 assists against only two errors.
At the plate Petersen hit .256 with two doubles, 18 runs and 10 RBI. She also walked 10 times and stole four bases.
Huxford hit .400 with two doubles and 20 runs and RBI apiece. She also had a team-high 10 sacrifice hits and walked nine times.
In left field, Huxford totaled 17 putouts.
Jones provided a weapon off the bench for Ballard on offense. She hit .300 with a double and three RBI and also threw two innings on the mound with two strikeouts and one walk.
Hall had a breakout sophomore season as she hit .323 with four doubles, three home runs, 22 runs and 17 RBI. She also made 42 putouts and 28 assists, primarily splitting time with Petersen at second base.
Struve manned first base for most of the season, taking over for veteran Katie Ahrenholtz. Struve only had seven errors in 215 chances with 205 putouts and three assists.
Struve hit .246 with one double, two home runs, 14 runs and 12 RBI.
Newell was a top pinch runner and a valuable reserve outfielder for Ballard.
Newell stole seven bases in eight attempts and scored 19 runs. She also hit .308 in 13 at-bats.
Madison McInroy scored 12 runs and also went six for six in steals as a pinch runner. Bendler walked once in five at-bats.
Carlin was Ballard’s top relief pitcher behind Ihle. Carlin posted 1-0 record with a 1.91 ERA, four strikeouts and no walks in 7 ? innings.
Moody joined with Newell to give Ballard a formidable one-two punch as pinch runners.
For the season Moody scored 12 runs and stole one base. She also hit .300 in 10 at-bats and made six assists and one putout, mainly as a backup for Stolte at short.
Kahler picked up one hit in three at-bats and she also drove in two runs during the season.
Next season it will be nearly impossible for Ballard not to take a step back with the loss of such a talented, deep and battled-tested senior class. But the program as a whole has risen with that class, so the Bombers still expect to be competitive going up against some of the best competition in the state in 2015.
"It appears as if graduation will take its toll, but to the players and coaches in the program there are very qualified players ready to create their own legacy," Sniezek said. "Practices were competitive at each position this season and that will end up helping the team next year. Success in softball starts in the pitcher’s circle and there will be some great competition for the starting spot next season. And there is a great senior-to-be group of returning starters who have had a lot of playing experience, which will ease the transition."