There may have been some bumps along the way, but the Collins-Maxwell-Baxter softball team made steady progress throughout the 2014 season.
The Raiders ended up 15-15 overall and they placed fifth out of 10 teams in the Heart of Iowa Conference with a 9-8 record. CMB also won two regional playoff games before succombing to a ranked Eddyville-Blakesburg squad in the regional semifinals.
The overall effort by CMB was a clear step in the right direction. In 2013 the Raiders went 11-21 overall and 7-11 in the conference and they failed to make it past the first round of regionals.
"I feel we had a very good year," CMB head coach Troy Houge said. "A 15-15 record might not seem like a good season, but like I told the girls, we played some tough competition and had a chance to beat some state-quality teams. I always say we are playing for the end of the year, not the beginning, and this year showed that. We had some growing to do early, but by the end of the year we were playing very well and had a chance to go deep into the postseason."
CMB started off strong, winning four of its first six games. The Raiders defeated Roland-Story (4-3), Saydel (7-2), Gilbert (10-0) and Nevada (4-0) and they lost two games to Oskaloosa.
The Raiders then hit a rough patch, losing eight of their next 11 games. CMB’s victories during that stretch came against Ogden (12-3), Gilbert (9-2) and Roland-Story (6-4).
The season turned for CMB with its final game of that difficult slate. The Raiders lost an 8-6 heartbreaker to an East Marshall squad rated No. 2 in Class 3A at Collins on June 20.
The very next day CMB traveled to State Center and won the Rose Festival Tournament by defeating Des Moines Christian, Newton and West Marshall.
"That was the weekend the girls really saw what they were capable of," Houge said. "Everything started to come together about that time and I think the night before the tournament may have been the key. I think the girls felt they should have won that game (versus East Marshall) and it showed they could play with the best teams in the state."
CMB strung its win streak out to five games after edging Nevada by a 6-5 score on June 23 and defeating North Polk the following evening by a 9-5 margin.
Eventual HOIC runner-up Greene County snapped the Raider winning streak by handing CMB a tough 2-1 setback on June 25. Then a Ballard team that finished No. 6 in 4A downed CMB by a 7-0 score.
On July 2 the Raiders split a doubleheader with Colfax-Mingo. They also had a shaky effort in a 13-1 loss at PCM the following evening to end the regular season.
But CMB didn’t let the finish to the regular season affect its postseason performance.
The Raiders opened 2A regional play with an exciting 5-4 victory at West Marshall. In the quarterfinals they won another thriller, disposing of Colfax-Mingo by a 7-6 score.
That set up a confrontation with Eddyville-Blakesburg - the No. 5 team in 2A - in the semifinals. The Raiders turned in a gutsy performance, but they ended up on the short end of a 3-1 score.
"The postseason was a good run," Houge said. "We battled right up until the end. We had two walk-off wins and a brief lead against Eddyville. The two wins showed what we are about - teamwork and hustle is what won those games. We scored 11 of our 13 runs in (regionals) with two outs. That shows the belief the girls had in each other."
CMB showed improvement in nearly every phase of play compared to a year ago.
On offense CMB scored 148 runs in 2014 with a .277 batting average, .347 on-base average, 54 extra base hits and 48 steals. Last year the Raiders put up 124 runs on a .270 average with a .329 OBA, 32 extra-base hits and 42 steals.
CMB gave up 166 runs this season and the Raiders had a staff earned-run average of 3.97. In 2013, the Raiders allowed 206 runs with a 4.27 ERA.
Individually, senior first baseman Abbie Haupert and junior shortstop Mackenzie Schmitz set the tone for CMB.
Haupert hit .374 with a .410 OBA and .505 slugging average. She also totaled nine doubles and two triples and 19 runs and RBI apiece.
Schmitz posted a .317 batting average with a .378 OBA. She paced the Raiders in steals with 14 and added three doubles and 19 runs.
Freshmen Megan Ritter and Veronica Condon stepped up big this year.
Ritter - an outfielder - hit .317 with six doubles, 19 runs and 14 RBI. Condon - usually the designated hitter and also a backup catcher - posted a .289 batting average with six doubles, 11 walks and 17 RBI.
Senior center fielder Taylor Ross anchored the outfield defensively and she also hit .271 as the team’s No. 2 hitter in the batting order behind Schmitz. Ross scored 13 runs and drove in eight.
Freshman second baseman Mikayla Eslinger and sophomore third baseman Payge Jurgens were the other regulars to hit over .200 for CMB.
Eslinger posted a .265 average with seven doubles, two home runs, 16 runs and 11 RBI. Jurgens hit .225 as she was the top power hitter on the team - belting seven doubles and six home runs, recording a .506 slugging average and leading the Raiders in both runs and RBI and 22 and 20 respectively.
Junior Abbey Appelgate handled most of the catching duties for CMB. Appelgate had a .312 on-base average with three doubles and 13 RBI and she also threw out five runners from behind the plate.
Freshman Heather Jessen and eighth-grader Avery Hlavacek also saw ample time at the plate.
Jessen hit .193 with six RBI. Hlavacek made some big noise late in the season by hitting .423 with a .538 slugging average, 12 runs, three doubles and seven RBI in just 26 at-bats.
Eighth-grader Katie Camp was the top courtesy runner for the Raiders as she tallied 11 runs and eight steals. Emily Coughenour crossed the plate five times for CMB.
"Different girls stepped up at different times," Houge said. "We did not have just one leader - all of the girls stepped up at some time to help us down the stretch."
On the mound Jessen displayed marked improvement from a year ago.
In 2013 Jessen went 3-4 with a 3.99 ERA, 17 walks and 11 strikeouts in 40 ? innings, splitting time with regular starter Cheyanne Warne. This season Jessen finished 13-13 with a 3.73 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 45 walks in 169 innings.
Schmitz threw the other 21 ? innings for CMB this season. She went 2-2 with a 5.91 ERA.
Haupert and Ross are the only seniors CMB loses.
"Abbie finally stayed somewhat healthy and played a whole season and Taylor completely changed her hitting during her junior year and became a very good slapper because of it," Houge said. "Taylor was a great center fielder as well - she will be tough to replace out there. Abbie led our team in most offensive categories and also saved our infielders a lot of errors. She was our leader in the infield and really helped the younger girls stay relaxed during games."
Though both players will be hard to replace, the amount of talent returning will put CMB in position to do some big things in 2015.
"We will still be young, but young and experienced is much better than being inexperienced, like we were this year," Houge said. "The conference was young as whole this year, so we will need to work hard in the offseason to continue our growth. The building blocks are in place for a very good year next year. If the girls work as hard in the off-season as they did during the season, we have the potential to be a very competitive team next year."