TAMA - In a high-stakes game some would play close to the vest, Alexa Johnson's sixth-inning swing represented the mental hurdle the Cougars have cleared.
And after her solo home run soared over the left field fence, the AGWSR softball team sensed its next goal in hand.
With arms fully extended, Johnson got hold of a high offering from Samantha Holtz to pad the Cougars' lead in a 7-2 victory over South Tama County - earning Class 2A No. 8 ranked AGWSR's first outright North Iowa Cedar League West Division title in seven years.
PHOTO BY TYLER STRAND
AGWSR’s Alexa Johnson (13) is greeted at the plate by her teammates after hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning during the Cougars’ 7-2 victory over South Tama County on Thursday in Tama. AGWSR, ranked No. 8 in Class 2A, clinched its first NICL West Division title since 2006 with the win.
"I was looking for a high one - even though they tell us to lay off those - they're my absolute favorite," said Johnson, who helped the Cougars claim their first conference crown since a three-peat from 2004-06.
"It was coming in kind of slow and I just went for it."
Johnson's gamble symbolized the looser approach the Cougars (19-6, 13-1) are playing with after a tense 4-3 victory over Class 2A No. 9 BCLUW just two nights before.
"Against BCLUW we didn't quite have the spark early that we needed to have," AGWSR co-coach Scott O'Brien said. "We hung on, kept playing and gutted it out. That one really took the monkey off our back. Once we got past that one, we've played a lot looser."
Johnson's blast certainly eased the tension Thursday night as Morgan Rose followed with an RBI single to plate pinch-runner Marissa Roberts and give the visitors a 5-2 cushion heading into the bottom of the sixth.
Johnson struck again with an RBI single in the seventh to score Roberts, before Kristen Zacharias' successful bunt brought in Marissa Horner from third.
Hannah Johnson's RBI single gave AGWSR an early 1-0 edge in its first at-bat. Olivia Ingledue drew a walk and stole second before Johnson's hit down the third base line brought her in.
Holtz retaliated in the bottom of the first for the Trojans (8-18, 4-7) with a run-scoring double to center field, plating pinch runner Naomi Hoskey, who took over for Tori Appelgate after she reached on an error.
Neither squad could break through again until courtesy runner Maddie Deters scored on a passed ball to the backstop in the top of the fifth. Ella Frazier drew a walk before Deters stepped in and advanced to second on Ingledue's sacrifice bunt. Deters moved another bag on the play as the throw to second dribbled into the outfield.
The Trojans took advantage of two Cougar miscues to trim the deficit in the bottom of the fifth. Belle Tyynismaa reached first on a misplayed bunt, before Riley Craun used a sacrifice bunt to move her into scoring position. Tyynismaa scored when Tori Appelgate also reached on a high throw to first.
It was good reason to push AGWSR into a panic. That is until Alexa Johnson uncorked her first career homer.
"She's been hitting the ball hard all year and hitting it solid," AGWSR co-coach Brenda Drake said. "She's been struggling the last few games getting out front - but it was her turn."
The Cougars sense its their turn as well and have won three straight after a 1-3 showing at the Bobcat Softball Classic Friday and Saturday, where they were limited by injuries and fatigue. While the quality of play against the Comets Tuesday left something to be desired, the final result was exactly what the Cougars needed.
"Even though that might not have been our best performance, it was definitely a huge step on our way here," Alexa Johnson said. "We had a lot of high goals (this season) and we've reached a lot of them so far."
Meanwhile the Trojans, who have came off their first back-to-back victories this season, saw the areas they need to address before reaching the next level.
"We have the potential to play with a good team like AGWSR, which I've known," STC coach Chelsea Ahrens said. "It just signifies what we've got to get better on - pitching and defense."
The Trojans threatened to score in the second, fourth and sixth, while also leaving the bases loaded in the seventh, stranding a total of 10 runners. AGWSR left eight runners on the bags.
Ashley Sicard earned the win allowing two unearned runs on seven hits, while striking out two and walking one. Holtz gave up seven runs (five earned) on 13 hits and four walks, while fanning a pair.
The Cougars face Madrid on the road tonight, while the Trojans host Gladbrook-Reinbeck Monday.
Ahrens commented on the competitiveness of the conference as well as the team's hope for a fourth place finish still in play. "This conference is just tough. That's good for us. ... We've got three ranked teams (ahead of us). We're hoping to finish fourth and we still have a shot at that.". ... South Tama committed four errors, while the Cougars had five.