Fort Dodge had the record, the ranking, the home-field advantage and the momentum in its corner for a Class 4A, Region 1 final at Rogers Park.
Tournament softball guarantees nothing, though. Le Mars learned that lesson the hard way a year ago, and on Tuesday, they made amends at the Dodgers' unexpected expense.
The unranked Bulldogs sent shockwaves through Diamond 1 and across the state landscape last night, plating a run in the bottom of the seventh inning to advance past No. 2 Fort Dodge and into the quarterfinals by a 3-2 final.
Messenger photo by Britt Kudla
Fort Dodge’s Lani Van Zyl slide into home for the first run against Le Mars during a Class 4A regional final on Tuesday at Rogers Park. For more photos, visit CU at messengernews.net
Messenger photo by Britt Kudla
An emotional Fort Dodge softball team huddles after losing a Class 4A regional final on Tuesday at Rogers Park to Le Mars. For more photos, visit CU at messengernews.net
Last season, Le Mars (21-16 overall) took an unbeaten 31-0 record and top 4A rating into a regional semifinal against Humboldt, where they suffered an upset loss. In the underdog role this time around, the Bulldogs turned the tables and clinched the program's first-ever state tournament berth by devastating the Dodgers in their own backyard.
''I'll be honest: this one is going to sting for a long time,'' FDSH head coach Andi Adams said after emerging from a dugout where nearly every Dodger player still sat in stunned disbelief almost 15 minutes after the game's conclusion. ''I legitimately feel like this was one of our best teams (during Adams' 14-year tenure) from both a talent and a chemistry standpoint, and we had a tremendous opportunity to do something special (Tuesday and beyond).
''It's both the beauty and the agony of softball. (Le Mars) went through the entire range of emotions from last year to this moment. We saw it three years ago when we knocked off Waukee at their place (in a regional semifinal). Upsets can and do happen. I am just crushed for our girls, though. I'm sad for our seniors, our other players, the fans - it's very disheartening, having all of this ripped from our grasp.''
LE MARS 3, FORT DODGE 2
Fort Dodge 100 100 0 - 2 6 1
Le Mars 001 0101 - 3 5 2
Mallory Kilian (L, 17-5; 6.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 4 K) and Molly Matthes; Janessa Mildbrodt (W, 11-10; 7 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 1 K) and Madison Heidebrink. 2B-L: Heidebrink. 3B-L: Heidebrink.
Fort Dodge (33-8) was the visitor on the scoreboard, and the Dodgers plated a run almost immediately for an early 1-0 advantage. As the contest progressed, however, it was clear that the Bulldogs weren't going away quietly.
No. 3 hitter Madison Heidebrink, the linchpin in Le Mars' lineup during its undefeated 2013 regular season, drilled an RBI triple off the right-field wall to plate courtesy runner Steph Williams and tie the score in the third. FDSH regained the lead at 2-1 on an RBI single by sophomore Madi Bennett in the fourth, but Heidebrink again answered with a run-scoring single in the fifth.
Heidebrink, a senior catcher who is now batting .472, saved her absolute best for last. After Holly Schneider was hit by a pitch with two outs and no one on base in the bottom of the seventh, Heidebrink doubled her home with a shot into the right-centerfield gap, breaking the 2-2 tie and giving her program an historic victory.
''You have to give Le Mars credit - they got the timely hitting and made both the pitches and the defensive plays it took to win,'' Adams said. ''Hat's off to them. They were loose and you could tell they were gaining confidence as the game wore on.
''We never created any kind of separation, and things tightened up and the pressure intensified (in the later innings).''
The Dodgers, who had won 13 consecutive games before last night, ran into outs between third and home in both the first and fourth innings. They also had a runner thrown out at third for the final out in the seventh.
Four of Le Mars' five hits came from Heidebrink, as the rest of the lineup went a combined 1 for 16. The Bulldogs benefited from four walks and two hit batters, however, as their last two runs came from players who were hit by a pitch.
Heidebrink's father, Doug, is the head coach at Le Mars. He announced earlier this season that this would be his last at the helm.
Junior Lani Van Zyl had two hits and a walk to pace the Dodgers, who never did completely solve Bulldog junior pitcher Janessa Mildbrodt (11-10). No. 9 hitter Bre Ulrich also recorded a pair of singles. Fort Dodge failed to deliver a single extra-base hit, though, after registering 82 total - 46 doubles, 18 triples and 18 home runs - before Tuesday.
Adams loses senior starters Lexi Astor, Maddie Egli and Maddie Bodholdt from a lineup that produced the program's best regular season since 2005. The Dodgers captured the CIC Northern division championship without dropping a single league game earlier this month.
''I love these girls with all of my heart,'' Adams said. ''When I say I'm disappointed, I am disappointed for them above any and everything else. They put the time, the work, the sweat and the tears into this. They go through the long road trips and tough practices and offseason workouts to get to this point.
''It's just a horrible feeling, having to say goodbye to them before the state tournament. We've had some difficult losses in big games through the years, but this one is as painful as any.''