As the IU Southeast Softball team transitioned into postseason play, every game felt as if they were fighting to extend their season as long as possible. After falling to Rio Grande in the winner’s bracket final of the River States Conference Tournament, that effort was put in jeopardy, suddenly finding themselves one loss away from season’s end. The Grenadiers did not falter in their quest for their second straight NAIA Opening Round appearance as they faced off against West Virginia Tech.
While the Grenadiers held the advantage for much of the contest, the Golden Bears rallied for three runs in the sixth to tie things up. With their season on the line, senior outfielder Madeline Probus helped save the Grenadiers’ season with one swing of the bat, a walk-off solo homer to defeat the Golden Bears 5-4. In the RSC title game against the regular-season champion RedStorm, the Grenadiers guaranteed the RSC’s second automatic bid to the National Tournament regardless of the outcome.
The Grenadiers forced a winner-take-all game against the RedStorm before ultimately falling 6-5. While a second straight RSC Tournament title would have been a very nice addition to a historic season, the Grenadiers found themselves fortunate to still have a season in general as they traveled to Columbia, MO., for the NAIA Opening Round. While traveling to unfamiliar territory, they took solace in knowing they opened tournament play against a familiar foe in #9 Marian University. After dropping a pair of tight contests to the Knights in the 2019 Opening Round and splitting a doubleheader earlier this season, this opening matchup appeared to be a little more personal for the Grenadiers.
Personal Rematch and Stifled Offense
After moving to nearby Battle High School due to weather-related issues at Columbia College, both sides played their aces in a marquee pitching matchup. Grenadier senior right-hander Hannah Ogg and Knights southpaw Sydney Wilson proceeded to duel for six innings, frustrating one batter after another as zeroes filled the scoreboard.
The Grenadiers finally broke through Wilson’s armor in the top of the seventh as they rallied for four runs, starting when sophomore outfielder Miranda Miller sniped a ball into right-center, allowing freshman third baseman Ellie Jackman to trot home to break the scoreless tie.
“I saw an outside pitch, and that was perfect for me especially considering there were runners on first and third,” Miller said. “Just to get that RBI single and score in the seventh inning was huge for our team and we were super hyped up after that.”
A 1-0 victory seemed too narrow for freshman shortstop Macie Zink, who stepped to the plate to pinch-hit for Ogg. Despite falling behind 1-2, Zink sent the next pitch over the left-field fence like a rocket for a pinch-hit three-run homer, eventually leading to a more comfortable 4-0 Grenadier victory.
“Over the past couple years I’ve seen [Zink] play, she squares balls up and hits them like a tennis player hitting a lob shot,” Witten said. “The ball doesn’t go left or right, it just keeps going in a straight line. It was just a matter of it hitting a bird because it wasn’t coming back.”
Starting the Columbia Regional 1-0, the Grenadiers weren’t the only team to upset a top 10 squad as they faced their next opponent in Mount Mercy to kick off the tournament’s second day. The Mustangs opened the regional by upsetting host Columbia College 4-1 in extra innings.
After a leadoff triple and an RBI fielder’s choice against Ogg in the top of the first, the Grenadiers quickly learned why the #7 Cougars fell as they faced Mustangs right-hander Jayla Witzany.
“I missed my spot on the first batter, who was their best batter, and she got a triple off of that hit,” Ogg said. “I was not happy with myself because of that first pitch, but I feel like I redeemed myself after that inning.”
After pitching eight innings of one-run ball against the Cougars, Witzany dominated the Grenadier offense, twirling a two-hit shutout while also allowing only two walks and striking out 12. While the Grenadiers avoided a possible no-hitter late, they could not capitalize on their limited scoring opportunities against the Cottage Grove, MN. native.
“Witzany was outstanding, she was the best pitcher we’ve seen all year,” Witten said. “She just moved the ball off the plate and got us to go chasing balls away, we weren’t swinging at strikes when we got two strikes on us.”
Backs Against The Wall
Suddenly finding themselves with their season at death’s door, the Grenadiers returned to Battle High School later that day hoping to keep their season alive against Columbia College, fresh off ending Marian’s season with a 3-2 loser’s bracket victory. With their season on the line, Witten handed the ball to freshman right-hander Brooklyn Gibbs to square off against Cougars starter Alyssa Roll, who entered the contest with a microscopic 1.14 ERA in just under 100 innings pitched.
“When you’re playing a team that has the fourth all-time winngest coach in NAIA history [in Wendy Spratt] and you’re playing in their town with their fans, they have a lot going for them,” Witten said of the Cougars. “We actually got to see them practice some so we felt like we knew them a little bit and we saw some cracks in their foundation that we could expose. We just needed that breakthrough play or breakthrough hit.”
With a trip to the Opening Round title game on the line, both the Grenadiers and Cougars found offense to be a rare commodity as Gibbs and Roll dueled for seven innings, keeping with the overall theme of the tournament. The pitcher’s duel frustrated both offenses to the point where an extra inning was needed for a decision.
The additional inning initially appeared to be the downfall of Gibbs as she surrendered a pair of one-out walks. Despite the weight of having the possible winning run at in scoring position, Gibbs persevered, forcing a pair of routine fly balls to centerfield to escape danger and give the Grenadiers another chance to survive.
“I knew that during my start against Columbia College, I really had to give it my all and focus,” Gibbs said. “I knew that our bats would come through, and I just needed to do my part on the mound.”
Inspired by guiding Gibbs through a tense situation, freshman catcher Erin Templeman stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the eighth. Not wanting to put her pitcher through any additional stress, her eyes locked on the first pitch she saw and swung. The moment mirrored what occurred against West Virginia Tech a week earlier. The only difference being this moment was a scoreless tie, which a freshman broke.
Templeman dropped her bat and began trotting down the first-base line. She raised her fist as she rounded first, doubt nonexistent in her mind about where that pitch landed. The Grenadiers flooded out of the third-base dugout, waiting for Templeman to cross the plate, knowing their season was extended by at least one game courtesy of a 1-0 walk-off winner.
“Right before I went up to the plate coach asked me how I felt and I told him this is my third time seeing her through and I’m just missing it I think this at bat I will definitely do something with it,” Templeman said. “As I stepped into the box I was relaxed and just turned on the inside pitch. I definitely was extra excited it was a feeling like no other.”
With the loser’s bracket final out of the way, they once against found themselves across the field from Mount Mercy. As the bottom two seeds in the Columbia Regional, both were on the verge of finishing off historical runs with a trip to their first-ever NAIA World Series. The Mustangs were one win away, thanks to being undefeated in tournament play. That made the task of defeating them more daunting for the Grenadiers, who needed to defeat the Mustangs twice to conclude the double-elimination tournament in their favor.
The second meeting between these clubs was similar, yet different, as the Grenadiers once again confronted Jayla Witzany. Unlike the previous matchup, Gibbs took the ball for the second straight game, dueling Witzany for the first two frames.
After mustering only two hits the previous day, the Grenadiers broke through against Witzany in the third, starting when Zink reached first after being plunked by a pitch. After being bunted to second, Zink raced home on an RBI single by sophomore second baseman Lindsey Nelson.
With another 1-0 lead in the tournament, the Grenadiers broke the game open in the fourth when Probus hit a one-out RBI single to bring Jackman home. Miller followed with another opposite-field hit to right-center to bring home a pair. Gibbs helped her own cause with an RBI double to bring home Miller, giving the right-hander a more comfortable 5-0 advantage en route to a complete-game shutout.
“We felt like if we got to see [Witzany] again, we were going to get the best of her,” Witten said. “We didn’t let her dictate the strike zone this time around. She didn’t have anything left that we didn’t see before.”
With the victory, the Grenadiers handed the Mustangs their first loss of the tournament, forcing a decisive winner-take-all contest with a trip to Columbus, GA., on the line. This isn’t the first time the Grenadiers have forced a final contest, having done so against Rio Grande in the RSC title game.
Hoping to change their fortunes from their previous winner-take-all showing, Witten gave the ball to Ogg as she took the circle against Mustang’s starter Emily Oler. Just like the previous meetings, the two starters dueled for the first two innings before the Mustangs once again got through to Ogg in the third. Morgan Braughton led off the frame with a double, allowing the Mustang offense to eventually load the bases with a pair of intentional walks sandwiched between a sacrifice bunt. Oler helped her cause in the circle by lofting a fly fall to right, allowing Braughton to trot home on the sacrifice fly.
Unlike their first meeting, the Mustangs struck for a second run with two outs in the fourth when Natalie Tecklenburg blooped a pitch just beyond first base. The ball eventually landed just inches fair of the right-field line to give the Mustangs a two-out baserunner. Braughton relished the opportunity as she ripped a line drive that fell over the head of Gibbs for an RBI double, giving the Mustangs a slightly more comfortable 2-0 advantage. Such a deficit felt much greater as Oler kept the Grenadier bats on ice throughout the contest.
“We didn’t face a dropball pitcher in the whole tournament, most of them were screwball or curveball pitchers, so this one had a lot of downward movement,” Witten said. “We were just having a hard time squaring the ball up, and when we did hit it, it was bouncing in that turf, taking good hops right to the defenders.”
Despite squandering multiple scoring opportunities earlier in the contest, the Grenadiers looked primed to explode in the bottom of the sixth as Gibbs crushed a leadoff double, followed by a Nelson single. An infield single by senior first baseman Kelsey Warman loaded the bases. After forcing a Jackman grounder to third to cause a force out at the plate, Nelson came home on an RBI fielder’s choice from Templeman to cut the deficit in half at 2-1. Freshman infielder Dallas Henderson grounded out to second to end the threat with the Mustangs’ lead hanging by a thread.
Going into the bottom of the seventh, the Grenadiers felt the curtains on their season beginning to fall as both Probus and Zink grounded out to the Mustangs’ middle infield. Down to their final out, Miller grounded a ball to the shortstop Bruner. Possibly as a result of her National Guard PT training, Miller made a mad dash down the line before diving headfirst into first base, narrowly beating Bruner’s throw to keep the Grenadiers’ season alive, if only for a few more minutes.
“I had actually thought about doing that the previous day because of the way the [artificial] turf was set up,” Miller said. “I kind of told myself that if there was another close grounder to potentially try to dive, try to beat it out. It was more of an instinct play at that point, but it ended up working in my favor.”
Gibbs followed Miller’s hustle with discipline, watching Oler’s next four pitches miss the strike zone to draw a two-out walk, putting the tying run in scoring position. The final rally was not to be as Nelson hit a ground ball to second, soon being forced to watch the Mustangs put the finishing touch on a historic Opening Round performance from the dugout.
“We were just one hit away from possibly going to the World Series,” Witten said. “I know the players are disappointed because they could taste it, but they’ll always go down as winners with me.”
A Season For The Ages
Despite falling short of their ultimate goal, the Grenadiers departed Columbia having completed a season for the ages. With their 5-0 victory against the Mustangs, the Grenadiers extended their program-best win total to 48 to finish at 48-18 (22-4 RSC).
The entire team’s success can be credited to several excellent individual campaigns, starting in the circle with right-hander Hannah Ogg. In just her second and final year in a Grenadier uniform, Ogg was dominant throughout the season, setting single-season program records in appearances (53), starts (36), wins (30), saves (4), strikeouts (243), and innings pitched (242.2). Her 30 victories and 242.2 innings not only led the RSC but ranked second in NAIA Softball as she became the first Grenadier to win RSC Pitcher of the Year since Jessica Leanhart won the honor in 2015.
“Despite me not playing at IUS for even two whole years because of the pandemic, this team still had an amazing season,” Ogg said. “Even though we didn’t meet the ultimate goal, we still had to battle through more in one season than other teams have in the past because of COVID. I think that makes this team so special because we overcame the odds between us and COVID.”
Excelling behind Ogg in the field include the likes of fellow seniors Probus and Warman. The former paced the Grenadiers with her legs, leading the pack with nine triples and 14 stolen bases, while the latter led with her bat courtesy of nine home runs, 51 RBI, 112 total bases, and 19 walks.
Alongside the three aforementioned seniors, the Grenadiers will also have to part with right-handed pitcher Kasey Pearson, infielders Maggie Lubbehusen and Kaitlyn Flowers, and outfielder Ashtyn Sharp. While not all could be on the field at once, Witten knew of the impact they all provided throughout the year.
“They left a legacy behind that will carry over to the next generation of players,” Witten said. “They’ve been tremendous.”
With the departure of this year’s senior class, the Grenadiers expect to return a roster consisting of mostly underclassmen led by a young core of stars such as Gibbs, Templeman, Jackman, and Zink, others. Alongside a talented class of freshmen en route to college in the fall, this historic finish may be only the beginning for the Grenadiers.
“We have a tremendous amount of confidence with the team that’s left and with players coming in, we’ll just pick up where we left off and hopefully be even better next year,” Witten said.