North Polk became an elite Class 3A softball program in 2018 after finishing the regular season ranked in the top five and just missing out on its first trip to state since 2008.

The Comets went 24-7 overall and 12-2 in the Heart of Iowa Conference under head coach Lynette Foster. They placed second to Roland-Story in the final HOIC standings, and fell to that very Norse team — the eventual state runners-up — by just a single run in the regional finals.

“It was a very good season and I was very proud,” Foster said. “North Polk finished ranked fifth, which is the best it’s been in a long time. The girls worked hard and could see they were coming together as a team.”

With the addition of Dowling Catholic transfer and Drake recruit Hannah Pals to two already strong hurlers in juniors Sophie Swygman and Baily Hougham, North Polk boasted one of the best pitching staffs in the entire state. The Comets also produced a potent offensive attack, with six players hitting .330 or better.

The end result was North Polk bettering its 2017 record by six games and advancing one round farther in the postseason.

North Polk tallied 11 shutouts and gave up only 52 runs in 2018. The Comet pitching staff recorded a collective earned-run average of 1.19 with 245 strikeouts against just 44 walks in 199 ⅓ innings.

“The pitching depth was a key to our improvement,” Foster said. “Our pitchers’ ERA improved drastically.”

In 2017, the Comets surrendered 135 runs with a 3.33 ERA in 200 innings.

Pals was an all-state performer, Swygman made the all-HOIC first team and Hougham was also an all-conference pick.

Pals went 8-3 with an incredible 0.49 ERA, 130 strikeouts and just 16 walks in 71 ⅔ innings on the mound during the season. Swygman logged the most innings, finishing 11-3 with a 1.49 ERA, 95 strikeouts and 17 walks in 98 ⅓ innings.

Hougham ended up 5-1 with a 1.91 ERA, 20 strikeouts and 11 walks in 29 ⅓ innings.

The North Polk defense provided solid support for the the pitching staff. The Comets recorded a .963 fielding average, with 557 putouts and 167 assists against 28 errors in 752 chances.

Offensively, North Polk scored 194 runs hitting .333 with a .393 on-base percentage and .466 slugging average. The Comets compiled 66 doubles, 14 home runs, three triples, 117 steals and 80 walks against 82 strikeouts.

Last season, North Polk scored 185 runs with a .301 batting average.

The top hitters for the Comets in 2018 were freshman outfielder Sydney Anderson, sophomore shortstop Ellie Owen, Pals, senior second baseman Sydney Albaugh, Swygman, senior center fielder Rebecca Ley and Hougham.

Anderson hit .467 with a .611 slugging average, 13 steals, 11 doubles, one triple, 19 runs and 25 RBIs. In the field, she made 30 putouts, four assists and just one error.

Owen, a first-team all-conference selection, registered a .402 batting average, .475 OBP and .539 slugging average with 13 steals, 12 doubles, one triple, 15 walks 31 runs and 13 RBIs. She had 34 putouts and 28 assists defensively.

Pals posted a .397 batting average and .769 slugging average with 11 doubles, six home runs, 11 steals, 25 runs and 26 RBIs. She came up with 24 putouts and 17 assists and had just one error in the field.

Albaugh came on to deliver a .363 batting average and .529 slugging average with eight doubles, three home runs, nine steals, 21 runs and 25 RBIs in her final campaign. Albaugh chipped in 37 putouts and 28 assists at second base.

Swygman hit .352 with a team-high .485 OBP and a .537 slugging average with 11 walks, eight steals, seven doubles, one home run, seven runs and 10 RBIs. She made 19 assists and nine putouts against three errors in the field.

Ley was a first-team all-HOIC pick after returning from an ACL injury suffered prior to her junior season to hit .333 with three doubles, 21 runs, 14 RBIs and a team-best 21 steals. At center field, Ley went all season without an error and came up with 31 putouts and two assists.

Hougham fell just shy of a .300 batting average, hitting .299 with a .582 slugging average, seven doubles, four home runs, five steals, nine runs and 23 RBIs. She delivered five assists with no errors in the field.

Freshman third baseman Hailey Steffen, sophomore catcher Tricia Sporra and senior first baseman Paige Sandberg were the team’s other regulars in the lineup. All three were given all-HOIC recognition.

Steffen posted a .295 batting average with three doubles, 15 runs, 10 steals and five RBIs. She came up with 27 assists and 11 putouts in the field.

Sporra hit .247 with a .358 OBP, one double, one triple, 21 runs, 20 steals and 11 RBIs. Behind the plate, Sporra had 217 putouts and 21 assists with only one error, and she threw out four base runners.

Sandberg didn’t make an error in 150 chances at first base, finishing with 143 putouts and seven assists. At the plate, she had a .238 OBP with six runs and three RBIs in 39 at-bats.

Freshmen Chloe Dougherty and Noelle Hoffman also got at least 20 at-bats for North Polk during the season.

Dougherty had six hits, five runs and two RBIs in 30 at-bats and Hoffman hit .350 with three doubles, three runs and six RBIs in 20 at-bats. Freshman Morgan Gass made six putouts and sophomores Abby Hill and Jenna Fagen five and two respectively for North Polk on defense.

The depth helped North Polk overcome the loss of two starters from last year to ACL injuries — infielder Carolyn Steffen and third baseman Hannah Foster. It also enabled the Comets deal with other nagging injuries that resulted in only four players competing in all 31 games.

During the season, North Polk achieved what most teams set out to do, but often struggle to accomplish, by playing its best ball at the end of the season. The Comets won 11 of their final 13 games and 19 of 22 after a 5-4 start.

The season began with North Polk blanking Gilbert, 7-0, then losing to powerhouse Indianola and Carlisle teams by 3-1 and 7-1 margins respectively. The Comets swept Lynnville-Sully (8-4) and Pella (10-0) at Alleman on May 26, then downed Nevada in HOIC play by an 8-2 score.

Roland-Story won a 1-0 battle over the Comets on May 31 at Alleman. North Polk came back with a 5-1 victory over East Marshall, then fell at Saydel by a 4-0 score on June 4.

A 4-1 triumph over Bondurant-Farrar on June 5 sparked a stretch of eight wins over nine games from June 5 through the Kiwanis Invitational on June 15-16 in Roland. The Comets also downed South Hamilton (14-2), Prairie City-Monroe (11-1), Gilbert (4-1), Greene County (4-0), Mount Vernon (9-2), Perry (7-3) and Ames (10-0) during that period, with their only loss being a 5-4 battle to Boone on June 16.

On June 17, North Polk picked up its biggest victory of the season, knocking off Roland-Story by a 2-0 score in 12 innings. The Comets followed it up with a 10-0 drubbing of Greene County, then went 2-1 at the Boone Invitational, avenging their earlier loss to Boone with a 1-0 triumph, whipping Chariton by a 12-1 score and falling to Des Moines Christian, 3-1.

North Polk toppled South Hamilton (6-0), Saydel (16-0), Nevada (12-0) and PCM (8-2) in its final four HOIC games. The Comets closed out the regular season with a 3-2 win over top-15 5A power Ankeny.

Regional competition began with North Polk downing Gilbert, 4-0, then winning a 10-5 decision over Kuemper Catholic to reach the regional finals. There, after splitting the season series, the Comets got a rubber match with Roland-Story for the right to go to state.

North Polk wasn’t able to get past the Norse and ace hurler Riley Holmgren. The Comets dropped a 3-2 heart breaker to a team that made it all the way to the 3A finals before falling to Davenport Assumption.

“Unfortunately, we fell short in the last game to a very good pitcher at Roland-Story,” Lynette Foster said. “I think the girls will learn from that and come hungry again next year.”

The Comet coach was still thrilled with how the season turned out as a whole.

“I enjoyed seeing the team come together,” Foster said. “I enjoyed seeing the seniors teach the younger kids. Our senior leadership was better than it ever has been.”

North Polk will miss the services of Pals, Ley, Albaugh and Sandberg.

“Sydney Albaugh was the sparkplug and leader, led the team to believe they could win, and she had an explosive bat when we needed it most,” Foster said. “Hannah Pals was a player who could contribute anywhere on the field defensively, and offensively with her bat. Paige Sandberg had an outstanding glove at first and will be missed. Rebecca Ley had the speed and strength to cover the outfield and track down most anything. It will be hard to replace these four seniors and all of their contributions on the field.”

But led by its two returning pitchers, there is enough talent coming back for North Polk Polk to make another run at state and the HOIC title in 2019.

“Sophie and Baily will be returning as the pitchers on the mound and will have the senior leadership, mental toughness and experience that we need to win,” Foster said.