Home field heroics

MARSHALL – Down three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning with the bases loaded and two outs, the Southwest Minnesota State softball team’s best hitter and the only senior on its roster stepped to the plate to try to extend the Mustangs’ home opener against Minnesota State-Mankato.

Amy Dreessen had already hit a home run in Game 1 of Thursday’s doubleheader against the Mavericks, one of the top teams in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. With the count full in her final at-bat, she did it again.

The 6-foot left-handed batter drove a shot over the right-center field fence for a walk-off grand slam that lifted SMSU to an 8-7 win on a cold and windy day at Mustang Field. Dreessen finished the game 3-for-5 with five RBIs, all of which came off her two blasts.

“Honestly, I was thinking of a base hit to just keep the game going,” Dreessen said of her final at-bat. “I ended up getting 3-2 and was thinking the runners will be in motion on the pitch and it would be nice to hit a gap. The wind kind of carried it and it definitely helped me out today.”

After piling up 13 hits in their Game 1 win, the Mustangs went cold at the plate in the second game and fell behind early in an 8-1 loss. SMSU moves to 10-10 overall and 3-5 in the NSIC after the split, while the Mavericks are 21-7 overall and 6-2 in NSIC play.

The Mavericks entered the doubleheader having allowed just four runs in their first six conference games combined, including three straight shutout wins. But a pair of throwing errors in the second inning stopped their shutout streak and allowed two SMSU runs to score as the Mustangs grabbed a 2-1 lead. The two teams combined for 10 errors in the game, with MSU-Mankato accounting for six of them.

“I don’t think any team is proud of their performance when they have that many errors, but we took advantage of their errors in the beginning and they took advantage of our errors later in the game,” SMSU head coach Missy Bruggeman said. “It’s all about coming out and being prepared and taking care of one play at a time to not allow teams to come back, but that’s kind of what happened and it turned out in our favor.”

MSU-Mankato struck back for four runs on two hits in the top of the third against SMSU starter Rachel Hoeppner, who went the distance and earned the win. Two of the runs were unearned as SMSU committed two errors in the inning.

Mavericks pitcher Courtney McKelvogue shut down the Mustangs for the next three innings and the MSU-Mankato offense added two runs in the top of the sixth to take a 7-2 lead. Dreessen responded with a solo home run in the bottom of the inning, but SMSU still trailed by four heading into the final inning.

Mustangs freshman catcher Emily Olson started the SMSU rally in the bottom of the seventh with a one-out solo home run to center field. Right fielder Alysse Luttmann then drew a walk, shortstop Chelsey Rodenkirch singled to center and Kaley Scearcy came up with a two-out pinch-hit single towards third to load the bases for Dreessen.

Dreessen is the most experienced player on a young roster that includes several freshmen and sophomores, a group that has had its ups and downs at the plate so far this season. But they came through at the end of Game 1 Thursday and Dreessen credited them for helping set her up for the dramatic finish.

“It’s definitely a learning experience for the younger girls and it definitely takes time, but if you have those quality at-bats, eventually it’s going to work,” Dreessen said. “As long as they go up there with the right mindset it will eventually come through.”

Bruggeman was proud of the grit her team showed to fight back against Mavericks when it seemed the Mustangs’ opponent had the game in hand.

“One of our big goals is to leave everything out on the field no matter what, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a game, whether it’s a little competition we’re doing within the team,” Bruggeman said. “It’s great to see the girls battle back. That’s kind of been the story of our team this year is we’ve been fighters through all seven innings.

“I can’t say the same thing about the second game, though. It was tough in that one because we got behind early and really struggled to come back after that.”

Fueled by the frustration of blowing a four-run lead in the final inning of Game 1, the Mavericks came out hot in the second game and scored four runs on three hits in the first inning against Hoeppner. They then knocked Hoeppner out of the game in the second inning when Lauryn Morris lined a two-out triple down the right field line and Lindsay Erickson belted a two-run home run over the left-center field fence to put the Mavericks up 6-0.

Hoeppner was replaced by sophomore pitcher Rachel Groff, who held MSU-Mankato to two runs on five hits and three walks over the next 5 1/3 innings. But the damage had already been done and the Mustang offense was unable to get going against Mavericks pitcher Brittany Lauterbach, who struck out seven and allowed just five hits in a complete-game victory.

Dreessen, who went 1-for-2 with a walk in the second game, said the rough start took the Mustangs out of their game and took away the momentum from the thrilling Game 1 win.

“That kind of killed us,” she said. “Before we could even do anything about it we were down 4-0 and then 6-0. It took us a while to get going against that pitcher. We really didn’t put up a lot of hits off of her and could never really string them together and get a rally going.”

Thursday’s home doubleheader came after 18 straight games on the road for the Mustangs. They’ll be back on the road this weekend, playing a doubleheader with Minnesota-Duluth Saturday and one with St. Cloud State on Sunday.