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Humboldt inspired by Rogers Park return

Submitted photo The 2020 state-qualifying Humboldt softball team includes, front row (left to right): Emma Clark, Addie Birdsell, Ellie Jacobson, Carlie Thompson, Addie Thompson, Reagan Lee, Jori Hajek and Macey Varangkounh. Back: Hannah Muir, Joie Smith, Emily Knight, Kendal Clark, Claire Varangkounh, Mady Lange, Alexis, Hansen and Ashlee Wergeland.

HUMBOLDT — Over the past two seasons, the Humboldt softball squad has learned how valuable and precious time can be both on and off the softball diamond.

A year ago, the Wildcats were lending their support to teammate Ashlyn Clark, who had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma.

This year, like everyone else, they had to find a way to fight through the COVID-19 pandemic while staying sharp during a shortened season.

“We went through so much last year with Ashlyn. It gave us perspective and taught us how precious each minute and each inning is,” said Humboldt head coach Doug Van Pelt. “This season, we had the smallest margin of error between playing or not playing.

“We continue to treat every game like it’s a gift. We take care of it and keep playing like we can.”

In 2019, their dream of making three straight state softball tournaments was cut short in a regional final. That loss has stuck with Humboldt, which has used that as fuel to their fire in a return to Rogers Park.

Through all the adversity and threat of the unknown, Humboldt will make its third trip to Fort Dodge in the past four seasons as the fourth-seed in the Class 3A field.

Van Pelt, who is in his 24th season as the Wildcats’ head coach, has watched this group develop since they were in middle school. That chemistry has created a family bond on the softball diamond.

“This group has played together since the fifth grade,” said Van Pelt, who reached 600 career wins this season. “This is their third trip in the past four seasons to Rogers Park.

“They were laser-focused on getting back to Fort Dodge. They definitely feel like they have unfinished business to take care of.”

Van Pelt was an assistant coach at Lisbon under Hall of Fame head coach Bob Bunting and a part of three state championship teams there.

“I was an assistant for Bob Bunting for four years,” Van Pelt said. “They know the background, and Lisbon practices with us during the week of the state tournament. Coach Bunting has talked to the kids.

“They are really concentrating on reaching their goal of becoming state champions.”

The Wildcats reeled off seven straight wins to start the season, and after a loss, put together another streak of 10 straight victories before dropping their season finale.

Once the postseason started, Humboldt was untouchable. They outscored two opponents 23-0 on their way to the quarterfinals in Class 3A.

Senior pitcher Ellie Jacobson (18-1) has been a dominant force in the pitching circle for the Wildcats. Jacobson has fired 11 shutouts this season, while striking out 184 batters — the fourth best total in the state. Her 18 wins is the second best in the state, and her 0.81 ERA is the third best in 3A.

“Any elite pitcher is the product of her work ethic,” Van Pelt said. “You don’t get to that level by picking up a ball the first day of practice and putting it down on the last. People don’t understand that these pitchers start at a young age and become masters of their craft through hard work.

“The amount of time that she has dedicated to it goes without saying. Ellie is a great kid and a great teammate. Nobody really knows the amount of time she has dedicated and the sacrifices she made to earn the success that she has.”

Junior Kendal Clark has slugged 10 home runs this year, setting the school’s single-season record. Clark’s 10 longballs are tied for second in the state.

Clark, who won a state wrestling championship this past winner, has spent a lot of time in the weight room to reach a new level on the diamond.

“Kendal has had a great year,” Van Pelt said. “She is good in everything that she does, and she really got committed to becoming more physical. She spends a lot of time in the weight room, and it paid off in wrestling and now in softball.

“Kendal is super athletic, and now she has added another level of power.”

Jacobson, Mady Lange, Claire Varangkounh, and Carlie Thompson are senior starters, with classmates Emily Knight, Addie Birdsell, Emma Clark and Hannah Muir on the roster as well. On paper, Jacobson and Clark aren’t the only Wildcats with standout numbers.

Jacobson is the leading hitter, batting .460 with 22 RBI. Clark has driven in a team high 30 runs and is batting .460. Lange is hitting .436 with 22 RBI and three home runs. Freshman Addie Thompson is hitting .436.

Junior Jori Hajek is at .411. She has 20 RBI with five home runs and 11 extra-base hits.

“That’s what makes a successful lineup: balance,” Van Pelt said. “If you just have one or two good hitters, you can pitch around them, but when you have five or six girls that can hit, that’s what makes you tough.

“We have girls that can play the short game as well. Put the ball in play and run. Those kids complement the power kids. And when you have so many kids that can do damage, that’s hard to beat.”

The Wildcats open tournament play on Monday against fifth-seed Mount Vernon (20-4). First pitch is set for 7:30 p.m. on Diamond 2 (Iowa Central Field).

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