It may have been a rebuilding year for the Ballard softball program in 2018, but the Bombers showed they still had plenty to offer after reaching 20 wins — competing in one of the toughest conferences in the state.

Ballard entered the season coming off a state runner-up appearance in 4A. But the Bombers had to replace a first-team all-state battery combo of pitcher Abby Carlin and catcher Skylar Rigby, along with senior leader Jenna Moody off last year’s outstanding 35-6 team.

With pitcher Megan Hadaway lost to an injury before the season, Ballard was down to two eighth-graders and a converted second baseman to handle the pitching duties. So the going was rough for awhile as the team adjusted to the young pitching staff against a tough schedule that included 10 games against 5A teams.

But as the season progressed, the Bomber pitchers became more and more comfortable and as a result, the team around them began to play with more confidence. When all was said and done, Ballard was again one of the top teams in 4A, finishing 20-17 overall and 9-5 in the always-loaded Raccoon River Conference.

“We had many players that just needed time to settle in and get used to the speed of the game at the 4A and 5A level,” Ballard head softball coach Charlie Husak said. “We work hard at asking the girls to recognize their role and do their job to the best of their ability. This group came in every day and were committed to getting better.”

The early growing pains saw Ballard start off 0-4. The Bombers fell to Pella (5-1), Norwalk (9-0), Ankeny (15-0) and Dallas Center-Grimes (6-5).

The first signs of Ballard’s potential became visible at the BCLUW Invitational on Memorial Day. The Bombers crushed a solid BCLUW team, 19-3, and also dismantled Belle Plaine by an 11-1 score.

Ballard was overwhelmed by top-five 4A power Carlisle in its RRC opener, 16-5, then split games with Clarke and Woodbury Central at the Ballard Invitational. Ballard fell to Clarke by a 6-0 score and whipped Woodbury Central, 9-0.

The victory over Woodbury Central marked the start of a big turnaround for the Bombers, who were starting to get more and more comfortable after the rocky start. They followed it up by winning at Bondurant-Farrar (7-4) and edging Boone (5-4) to head into the Adel-Desoto-Minburn Invitational with positive momentum.

At the ADM Invite, Ballard earned big wins over 5A school Ankeny Centennial (4-3) and eventual 3A state runner-up Roland-Story (5-2). The Bombers also whipped Colfax-Mingo (10-0) and Sergeant Bluff-Luton (10-1) at Adel.

On June 12, Ballard crushed Carroll by an 11-1 score to run its win streak to nine games.

“Although we had many returning players, we were still very young and the roles changed for many of our returning players,” Husak said. “They were asked to step into a different role than they’ve had in the past. That was uncomfortable for some at first, but as the season progressed, each player made adjustments and had success in their roles.”

Ballard split four games at Fort Dodge on June 15-16. The Bombers defeated Sioux City East (8-4) and Dowling Catholic (8-7) and fell to Ankeny (16-2) and Muscatine (9-2).

The Bombers edged Boone in a 9-8 RRC battle on June 19, then gave Carlisle a good fight the next day before falling, 4-2. On June 22-23, Ballard went 1-3 at the Ankeny Invitational, taking down Ankeny (8-5) and losing to Ankeny Centennial (9-1) and close ones to Bishop Heelan Catholic (4-3) and Dowling (3-2).

Conference play resumed June 25 with Ballard taking down both Carroll (9-2 in a makeup game) and Bondurant-Farrar (8-1). The next day, the Bombers scored their second win over Roland-Story with a 2-1 triumph at Huxley.

On June 27, Ballard dropped both games of a doubleheader to defending 4A state champion Winterset, 6-0 and 7-4. The Bombers downed Perry the next evening, 10-6, then suffered a 5-4 home loss to Ames.

The regular season ended with Ballard facing eventual 4A state runner-up ADM in a doubleheader at Huxley. The Bombers suffered a 6-3 setback in one game, but earned a huge 6-4 win in the other — courtesy of a walk-off grand slam by sophomore first baseman Maggie Larson.

A rematch with its season-opening foe Pella was in the cards for Ballard to begin 4A regional play. The game turned into a perfect microcosm of the season for the Bombers as they fell behind big early, and rallied to within one late on another clutch grand slam by Larson, only to fall by a 9-8 score.

“We were very young, and couple that with a revised out-of-conference schedule and there will be some failure that leads to that inconsistency,” Husak said. “Overall, it is a good challenge as it makes us better as a program.”

At their peak, the Bombers showed they were a state-caliber team. Ballard scored three victories over 5A teams and three more wins over teams that went on to place second at state in their respective classes.

“When everything is clicking, we can play with anyone,” Husak said. “They were being asked to compete against teams this program hasn’t competed against before. Beating Ankeny Centennial, Ankeny and Dowling were big steps for this program and for these girls.”

Eighth-grader Matty Beerbower saw most of the pitching duties for Ballard, trying to replace Carlin, along with Hannah Elliott, off last year’s outstanding team. Sophomore Isabell Hobbs split time between second base and on the mound and another eighth-grader, Maggie McCrady, also saw valuable time later in the season.

The Bomber pitching staff allowed 192 runs with a 4.15 earned-run average, 163 strikeouts and 135 walks in 221 innings.

Beerbower was 16-14 with a 4.39 ERA, 131 strikeouts and 108 walks in 148 ⅓ innings. Hobbs went 2-3 with a 4.41 ERA, 16 strikeouts and 20 walks in 46 innings and McCrady finished 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA, 13 strikeouts and seven walks in 23 ⅔ innings.

Sophomore Emma Utley also saw limited time on the mound, getting in three innings of work and recording a 2.33 ERA with three strikeouts and no walks.

Defensively Ballard was solid, recording a .933 fielding average with 657 putouts, 245 assists and 65 errors in 967 chances. The Bombers recorded the exact same fielding average in 2017.

Offense continued to be a strength for Ballard in 2018. The Bombers scored 209 runs, hit .329 with a .406 on-base percentage and .416 slugging average and recorded 38 doubles, five triples, 11 home runs, 102 walks and 80 steals.

Sophomore outfielder/second baseman Abby Husak, a Collins-Maxwell transfer, emerged as Ballard’s biggest weapon on offense.

Abby was named second-team all-state in 4A by the Iowa Girls Coaches Association after hitting .510 with a .528 OBP, .569 slugging average, six doubles, 11 steals, 31 runs and seven RBIs. She made 26 putouts and 19 assists defensively.

Beerbower, Hobbs, Larson, sophomore shortstop Isabella Johnson and junior outfielder Karlee Ahrenholtz also hit over .300 for Ballard during the season.

Beerbower hit .425 with a .489 OBP, .525 slugging average, three doubles, one triple, one home run and 22 RBIs. In the field, she made 36 assists and 12 putouts with only three errors.

Hobbs posted a .358 batting average, .449 OBP, .462 slugging average, six doubles, one triple, one home run, 11 steals, 32 runs and 30 RBIs. On defense she was outstanding, coming up with 43 putouts and 33 assists with only three errors.

Larson hit .327 with a .419 OBP, six doubles and four steals. She led the team in home runs with eight, RBIs with 41 and slugging average with a .633 mark.

In the field, Larson made 221 putouts and seven assists.

Johnson tallied a .382 batting average, .420 OBP, .436 slugging average, four doubles, one triple, 26 runs, 17 RBIs and a team-high 17 steals. On defense, Johnson picked up 71 assists and 43 putouts.

Ahrenholtz delivered a .341 batting average and .468 OBP. She drew a team-high 22 walks and also had three doubles, six steals, 15 runs and 23 RBIs.

Playing mainly in the outfield, Ahrenholtz made 38 putouts against just three errors.

Junior third baseman Rachel Newell, freshman outfielder Carley Wilson and freshman catcher Molly Houge were the other regular starters for Ballard in the field.

Newell hit .276 with a .355 OBP, four doubles, two triples, 26 runs, 13 steals and eight RBIs. In the field she registered 54 assists and 33 putouts.

Wilson had a .333 OBP with two doubles, 10 runs, five RBIs and four steals. She recorded 51 putouts and three assists on defense.

Houge did a nice job filling in for Rigby behind the plate, turning in a .301 OBP with three doubles, one home run, six runs and 13 RBIs. She only had two errors in 198 chances on defense, picking up 17 assists and throwing out two base runners.

Freshman Brynna Huen and junior Allison Vetter were the only other Bombers to get double-digit at-bats. Huen hit .333 with a double and four RBIs in 24 at-bats and Vetter went up to bat 15 times and scored four runs.

Freshman Rory Olson was Ballard’s top courtesy runner. Olson scored 10 runs and stole seven bases.

Eighth-graders Kylie Rigby and Ali Buben also played in more than 10 games for Ballard, scoring seven runs apiece.

With no seniors on the roster, Ballard figures to be right back in the hunt for a state tournament appearance next season, and the Bombers also could contend for the RRC title.

“We need to continue developing our young players in the offseason so they can have the growth they need to compete in our conference and with our schedule,” Charlie Husak said. “As this happens, they will push each other and make each other better and more competitive, which will strengthen them as individuals, strengthen Ballard softball and help us overcome the inconsistencies we had in 2018.”