Closing out strong

MARSHALL – As one Southwest Minnesota State Mustang softball player put the finishing touches on a sterling career over the weekend, another found her groove in the season’s final games and stirred up hope for the future.

First baseman Amy Dreessen, the lone senior on the SMSU roster for 2013, went 3-for-3 with a walk and a run scored in her final game Sunday, the second game of a doubleheader against Minnesota State-Moorhead at Mustang Field. Ranked in the top five in school history in multiple statistical categories, she perched herself at the top of the list with a .726 slugging percentage and a .554 on-base percentage, both of which are new SMSU single-season records.

And in the circle, SMSU sophomore Rachel Hoeppner earned four victories in four games, including a pair of shutouts. Saturday, she led SMSU to a 2-0 win over Northern State in the first game of a doubleheader, then had a big hand in a 5-3 win over the Wolves. Sunday in SMSU’s last two games of the season Hoeppner threw an eight-inning complete game shutout in a 1-0 victory over Minnesota State-Moorhead and capped things off with five shutout innings of work in a 6-1 win over the Dragons.

The Mustangs missed out on the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference playoffs for the second time in school history, and for the second straight year, with a 12-16 mark in the conference (19-21 overall). But with Hoeppner earning five wins in the team’s final six games, SMSU head coach Missy Bruggeman was excited about what the future holds for the young pitcher.

“In her last few outings here we saw the consistency and the confidence that she was sometimes lacking during the rest of the season,” Bruggeman said of Hoeppner, who finished with a 13-13 record. “Part of it for her was coming out and throwing hard and believing she could hit the spots that she needed to hit. She did a tremendous job throwing 27 innings over the last two days that we played.”

In Saturday’s opener against Northern State Hoeppner allowed just two hits, and a home run by Morgan Peterson helped SMSU earn the 2-0 victory. The Wolves struck for three runs in the opening inning of the second game, but Peterson belted a grand slam (her third of the season) later in the game to put SMSU back on top.

Hoeppner found herself in a pitchers’ duel in Sunday’s opener against MSU-Moorhead (7-36 overall, 5-23 NSIC), which didn’t have a single home game all season due to the extra-long spell of wintry weather. She and Morgan Nybo each tossed seven scoreless innings before SMSU broke through with a run in the bottom of the eighth.

SMSU left fielder Alysse Luttmann led off the inning with a single to left and was going to be moved ahead on a sacrifice bunt by Shelbie Stoll, but the Dragon third baseman overthrew first base and Luttmann was able to run all the way to home plate on a walk-off error.

While neither pitcher gave up an earned run in the game, Hoeppner seemed to get stronger as the innings progressed and even struck out the side in the seventh, three of her seven strikeouts in the game. She scattered seven MSU-Moorhead hits and allowed just one walk in the victory.

The Dragons’ fielding miscues carried on into the first inning of the second game on Sunday. SMSU scored six runs on four hits and four errors in the inning. One of the key hits for SMSU was a single by catcher Kailey Hanson. She punched a hit through to left field and the outfielder committed a fielding error that allowed two runners to score and Hanson to advance to third. By the end of the inning SMSU had a commanding 6-0 lead, which was more than enough run support for Hoeppner.

Hoeppner allowed just one hit and one walk in five innings of action before being relieved by Rachel Groff, who gave up one run in the final two innings.

Dreessen had a fitting end to her career, reaching base in all four plate appearances. After drawing a walk in the sixth inning she was replaced by a pinch runner and drew an ovation from the crowd and her dugout as she walked off the field for the final time.

“Amy has kind of been the rock, the foundation for the team this year,” Bruggeman said. “With the ups and downs that we’ve had, she’s always been a consistent player for us and a consistent leader on the team, somebody the girls look up to for advice, for experience, even for the actions she has on a day-to-day basis.

“She will be greatly missed in this program but definitely not forgotten. She’s leaving a good legacy here at Southwest and it will be exciting to tell recruits about her someday in the future.”

Following a career year as a senior, Dreessen leaves SMSU ranked in the top five in on-base percentage (.436), walks (91), hit-by-pitch (13), chances (1,311), putouts (1,269), doubles (33) and home runs (18).

Dreessen’s departure will leave a large void, but the Mustangs return everyone else from a group that finished the season playing some of its best softball of the year. Bruggeman pointed out that it was a stark contrast to how the team finished the previous season in which it dropped six of its last eight games.

“Last season we seemed to struggle a little bit toward the end of the year and this season we got through that hump and finished a little bit stronger than we did last year,” Bruggeman said. “I think the girls have a lot to look forward to in the offseason. A lot of them will be going into their third year, we’re pretty heavily laden with this junior class, so the experience that folds over each year is really going to help our program.”