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Algona is back with bigger goals in mind

Submitted photo The 2020 state-qualifying Algona softball team includes, front row (left to right): Lily Elsbecker, Brooklyn Helmers, Alyssa Hentges, Lillian Etherington and Tora Solbach; Back: Ashlin Young, Kameryn Etherington, Olivia Moe, Emma Zabka, Kenzie Carrigan, Laura Wegner, Emma Elsbecker, Moriah Knapp.

ALGONA — The Algona softball team was a bounce here or a break there from shocking the state softball world a year ago.

Now the Bulldogs return to the big stage, determined to prove not only that they belong in Fort Dodge — but they’re also a legitimate Class 3A contender.

Head coach Todd VanOtterloo’s squad faces Williamsburg at 1 p.m. on Tuesday in a quarterfinal matchup. Algona lost just one regular season game, but only drew the No. 6 seed at state.

The Bulldogs are used to being discredited and overlooked by now, though. Last season, unranked Algona stunned No. 3 Humboldt in a regional final to reach the state field with a 17-10 record. The momentum carried over to Rogers Park, where they dropped a dramatic 3-2 decision to three-time defending state champion and top-seeded Davenport Assumption in the quarterfinals.

This time around, the Bulldogs sport both a glossy record (16-1) and a Top-10 ranking (6th). They’ll play with the same chip on their shoulder as a year ago, though, and hope it brings success on the big stage in VanOtterloo’s first summer at the helm.

“This year has been a lot of fun,” said VanOtterloo, who took over when Jackie Fonley moved to Pocahontas to take an administrator position. “The girls are very familiar with each other due to a lot of players returning from last year. The chemistry has been great and the girls have enjoyed the opportunity to play, as it wasn’t guaranteed they get a chance (due to the global pandemic).

“The girls did set a goal of making it back to state, but throughout the season, they didn’t even talk about it. They have been focused on their next opponent each time out. As a first-year coach, I have just tried to get the team to get better each time out on the diamond, compete each pitch, and enjoy the chance to play.”

All-stater Kameryn Etherington is the program’s linchpin. The Northwestern College recruit, a senior, has a 14-1 pitching record with an 0.60 earned run average. Her only setback came in a 4-2 loss to fourth-ranked Humboldt, which Etherington shut down in the 2019 regional final.

Etherington is also batting a state-best .667 with five home runs and 16 RBI at the plate.

“I have relied on the three seniors — Kameryn, Ashlin (Young) and Alyssa (Hentges), to lead this team,” VanOtterloo said. “They have done a nice job leading, and the other players have been following their lead.”

Freshman Moriah Knapp is hitting .375, and classmate Lillian Etherington is batting .321.

AHS has relied heavily on low-scoring decisions to reach this point. The Bulldogs prevailed seven times via shutout, and had three more wins in which they allowed only one run.

At state a year ago, Etherington had a two-run double to plate Hentges and Young in the sixth inning and pull Algona within 3-2 of mighty Assumption. The Bulldogs stranded the bases loaded in that frame instead of pulling even or taking the lead against University of Iowa recruit Allie Timmons.

Algona bounced back the next day and defeated Albia — this season’s No. 1 seed — 5-4 in the consolation round. Lily Elsbecker — the niece of former Fort Dodge Senior High baseball coach and activities director Matt Elsbecker — drove in a pair of runs in that game.

Elsbecker is now a freshman on this squad.

Eight starters are back in all for the Bulldogs, who made their state tourney debut in 2019.

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