From the foundation up
Senior trio leads West Marshall softball back to state
STATE CENTER — The ending has everything to do with the beginning for a trio of West Marshall softball seniors who will play their last three games as Trojans this week in Fort Dodge.
Kallie Malloy has been pitching to Georgia Porter for five years at the varsity level, and Kylie Cripps has seen plenty of playing time over the last four summers in State Center. Their journey together will come to an end on the diamonds at Harlan Rogers Sports Complex, but to them, it’s all about the memories they’ve made and the tradition they hope they’ve awakened.
The 10th-ranked West Marshall softball team meets top-rated Davenport Assumption in tonight’s opening round of Class 3A play at the Iowa Girls’ High School State Softball Championships under the primetime lights on the feature diamond. It’s the Trojans’ first state tournament appearance since back-to-back visits in 2002 and 2003, powered by a new program record for wins in a season, a veteran battery and a second-year head coach with plenty of experience in the limelight.
And five years ago, when Malloy, Porter and Cripps were eighth-graders, West Marshall won just eight games.
“It was pretty bad,” Malloy said. “We had some really bad years and it was tough. It’s been a long journey.”
Only as far as the flashbacks took them.
Embracing each other and the rest of the squad in the pitcher’s circle after beating No. 5 Atlantic 3-2 in the regional finals, each of West Marshall’s three seniors caught glimpses of their humble softball beginnings.
And if not there in the moment, the memories came flooding back on the way home.
“When we were little we played for our town teams,” Porter said. “Kylie and I played for Melbourne, Kallie played at Rhodes and Grace [Porter, Georgia’s cousin] played here in State Center, and it was always like a little rivalry. On the bus ride home from Atlantic, Brooke Snider — she’s the DJ — was playing ‘We Are the Champions’ and that’s what we used to play when we would ride through the parade in Melbourne Mousehole Days, and we were bawling on the ride home just thinking about how we’ve always played together and grown up together.”
“It’s the same kind of feeling,” Cripps said. “Kind of a family feeling. You do it together, you started the season together, you’re ending it together, you’re in it together.
“We’ve got these three games we’ll play [at state] as a team and there’s nothing better. We’ve never been to state, and to be seniors and to take the team to state, we can only hope we set an example that they follow for years to come.”
Malloy said Georgia was the first one she got her hands on after striking out the final batter of the regional final.
“We were all smiles and tears. A lot of tears. Happy tears,” Malloy said. “It was just an amazing moment I’ll cherish forever. It’s crazy, you get chills and knowing all that hard work that you put in, time and effort, paid off and it’s an amazing feeling.”
Malloy has maneuvered her way around arm and shoulder problems throughout her softball career, though none of it ever demanded surgery. Even during this year’s postseason playoffs, the healthiest days of her career, Malloy’s right forearm cramped up so badly she couldn’t unclench her fist.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” she said. “I’m still battling some things, but I’ve come a long way. I’ve learned how to manage it, maintain it. It’s been a long journey but it’s been worth it so far.”
Her earned run average in the pitching circle for West Marshall has plummeted since the beginning. In 46 innings toeing the rubber as an eighth-grader Malloy posted a 7.00 ERA. She nearly cut that in half despite a pain-ravaged freshman campaign (3.89), and her ERA leveled out at 3.45 as a sophomore.
The arrival of head coach Todd Verwers signaled a change across the board for West Marshall, which had reached only one regional final (2011) since the team’s last state berth. Verwers, who led Martensdale-St. Marys to seven-straight trips to state and a 1A championship in 2012, took over a Trojan program longing to return to the days in which West Marshall was considered something of a powerhouse.
West Marshall had 10 state tournament appearances between 1976 and 2003, highlighted by a runner-up finish in 1990, and was a perennial force in the Heart of Iowa Conference. Members of this year’s squad were, at most, 4 or 5 years old the last time the Trojans took the field in Fort Dodge. The tradition has resided in record books and in trophy cases lining the halls of the high school for too long, Porter said.
“As a senior, it’s been a long time, a lot of pitches and a lot of games,” she said. “It’s really cool to finally get a banner to hang up in our gym. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a red one to put up there.”
The driving force, Porter said, has been a renewed attitude.
“This year we’ve been really fortunate — in basketball too — when you’re friends together and you’re a team, better things seem to happen. Nobody really knew what to expect coming into the season, and five games in after beating AGWSR here at home in that first week, we realized we’re a lot better this year,” Porter continued. “We’ve really bonded together, we swim together, eat together, play pranks on the baseball team together; It’s a companionship and I think that makes for a lot better team.”
Cripps commented that this summer has been her most enjoyable sports season by far, and the success has merely been a byproduct.
“I think the team, the sportsmanship, has been great,” she said. “We’ve come together as a team. This is my favorite year. We have come together and bonded really well and we’re more of a team than I’ve ever seen.
“I think it just started off that everyone had a better attitude coming into the year, people have matured and we’ve accepted the younger people, cheered everyone on and it has just grown every single day.”
And at the start of the season, so did the win streak. West Marshall defeated NICL West Division rival AGWSR 4-3 in its second game of the summer, and eventually claimed 17-straight to open the year. The Trojans debuted in the 3A rankings at No. 14 when they were 11-0, and hit No. 10 before falling 2-1 to AGWSR in Ackley for their first loss of the season.
West Marshall was 22-2 when it climbed one more spot in the rankings to No. 9, but lost four more games — three to ranked teams — before regionals began, and leveled out at No. 10 in time for the final poll.
“We started off 17-0 and nobody knew anything about us, so that was good,” chuckled Verwers. “Then all of the sudden people start figuring you out and know who you are, but I really did think from Day 1 if we could keep Kallie healthy and make some progress here and there and became a little more consistent at the plate that maybe we could do something special.”
Malloy, after a junior campaign in which she posted a 1.56 ERA, reached full strength this summer. She got more rest down the stretch and heads to state with a 0.58 ERA, 247 strikeouts in 180 innings, and a scholarship to Iowa Central Community College — which plays its home games on the same diamond the Trojans do tonight.
“I’m excited,” Verwers said. “It’s prime time on Field 1 at Fort Dodge — can’t ask for much more than that, and I’m just glad the girls get to experience it and make another life-long memory and can pass it along to their kids and grandkids, keep that family tradition back going.
“West Marshall has a strong softball tradition that’s been dormant for a while, but I think we’ve done a good job resurrecting it. The conference schedule has built-in tough games, there’s no night off. We’re tested all the time. I would have never thought with four teams [from the NICL West] in the regional finals that we would be the only one to survive. To carry that flag for the conference, we’re proud to represent one of the best softball conferences in the state. I think we’ve represented the conference and the school pretty well and we’ll try to keep doing that at Fort Dodge.”
The villain in this storybook season for West Marshall (33-6) will be portrayed by a Davenport Assumption squad that lost 8-0 to Benton Community in last year’s title game and appears hell-bent on getting back to the state finals. The Knights (41-1) lost their season-opener to Moline, Ill., and haven’t been defeated since, striking down 5A qualifiers Pleasant Valley and Davenport West among others during Mississippi Athletic Conference competition.
Assumption is driven by senior pitcher Nicole Timmons, a Drake University recruit with 280 strikeouts in 128 2/3 innings and a 0.44 ERA, and catcher Emma Valainis, a Northern Iowa signee with eight home runs and 49 RBIs this summer.
They’re both five-year starters, just like Malloy and Georgia.
“It’s invaluable,” Verwers said of having batterymates who have shared five years together. “The thing about Georgia and Kallie, they’ve probably been here when it’s the lowest of the lows and now they’re here, at the pinnacle of high school softball in Iowa. They’ve been here when it’s not been so good, and they are definitely two of the main reasons we are where we’re at today.”
Cripps has contributed a .285 batting average in four years of varsity action, while Porter has hit .350 in five seasons starting behind the plate.
“It’s been great,” Malloy said of sharing the senior leadership role with Cripps and Georgia. “I love my other two girls I’ve been with all throughout this journey.”