New group of Wildcats return for state encore

Submitted photo Members of the state-qualifying Humboldt softball team are, front row, left to right: Kendal Clark, Jori Hajek, Annie Boyd, Emily Knight, Ashlyn Clark, Carlie Thompson, Claire Varangkounh and Bae Arnold; Back: Addie Birdsell, Megan Abens, Kyah Arnold, Alexis Hansen, Rachel Darling, Maggie Bennett, Mady Lange and Elllie Jacobson.

The run put together by Humboldt to reach the state softball tournament a year ago was expected.

By becoming the first team in school history to make it back-to-back years, though, all those new faces around the Wildcat program have their own achievement on the resume now.

No. 4 Humboldt (30-3 overall) will meet seventh-ranked Atlantic (30-5) in a Class 3A quarterfinal here on Monday night at 7:30 p.m. on Diamond 2.

Seven seniors helped the Wildcats score a school-best fifth place finish a year ago, rallying following an opening round loss to win the consolation title. That call to repeat the feat fell on the shoulders of returning all-state pitcher Ellie Jacobson, leadoff hitter Carlie Thompson and Mady Lange among others.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Thompson said. “Graduating so many, we knew we had a lot of work to do. We knew we were a young team, but our expectations were still high. We wanted to make it back and do even better this year.

“We had great leaderships the last couple of years and I think we just picked up where they left off and continued to try our best to lead. Coach (Doug VanPelt) does a great job of setting the tone for what he expects from all of us on and off the field.”

Thompson enters state hitting .457 with 23 steals, 25 RBI and 10 walks to just seven strikeouts. She is one of four Humboldt regulars with more walks than strikeouts at the plate this year.

Lange, a sophomore like Thompson, bats .456 with 32 RBI, 14 steals and 11 walks to nine Ks. The two have combined to record 100 hits with five homers and 19 doubles. Thompson also has 46 runs scored.

“Getting back to the state tournament feels absolutely amazing,” Lange said. “We had so many talented seniors last year, we knew it was going to be tough replacing them, but the younger girls stepped up and fit right in.

“(Qualifying for state) after we lost so many seniors just goes to show how much we wanted this and how hard we worked for it.”

One of those newcomers is freshman Jori Hajek, who has hit a team-high eight homers. Hajek has driven in 29 runs and swiped 14 steals, posting a 14-to-6 walk-to-strikeout ratio.

Hajek’s classmate, Kendal Clark, has 20 RBI and is hitting .394, with juniors Ashlyn Clark and Kyah Arnold driving in a combined 26 on 58 hits.

Rachel Darling, one of two seniors on the roster with Maggie Bennett, is hitting .426 with 22 RBI and 43 hits.

“It was extremely important to set a good tone early on in the year for the younger girls,” Lange said. “We wanted to start the year off on a good note and we wanted to show up every single game ready to play Humboldt softball. We are such a young team that lacked experience and we just had to learn as we went.

“This team learned quick and that was important so we could achieve everything that we wanted to this season.”

One piece that returned intact was Jacobson inside the circle. The 10th-grader posted a 28-2 record with 235 strikeouts in 187 innings and a 0.94 earned run average. She also hit .356 with 19 RBI and 11 walks.

Opponents batted just .146 off of Jacobson, who had eight games of 10-plus strikeouts this year.

“It’s an honor to be one of the eight teams competing to be the best,” Thompson said. “We can’t wait to step on the field and play Wildcat softball. We feel we have the talent and chemistry to compete with the best.”

Humboldt has now qualified six times for the state tournament, adding to appearances in 1978, ’85, 2004, ’06 and last year. The Wildcats also won the North Central Conference this past season.

“Reaching the state tournament and playing at Rogers Park means the world to me,” Lange said. “This is such a special opportunity to be part of and I wouldn’t want any other teammates or coaches by my side.

“Getting the chance to play for the state title again is truly a humbling experience and I am excited to take it on with my team.”

Atlantic makes its second trip to state, having also advanced in 2016. The Trojans have won 13 in a row since a 1-0 loss to fellow state qualifier Waterloo Columbus.

Seniors Ally Anderson and Alexis Handel are both hitting over .500, with Handel blasting 11 homers and driving in 54. Anderson, who is 25-4 inside the circle with 196 strikeouts and just 19 walks, has driven in 40 runs.

Handel has signed with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a Div. I program, while Anderson is headed to Des Moines Area in the fall.