No. 9 Mustangs ride 15-game win streak into regionals

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE - East Marshall junior Hannah Birks trots around the bases after hitting a three-run home run in the third inning of Saturday’s softball game against Lynnville-Sully at the Grinnell Tournament. Birks had career-highs of four hits and six RBIs in the Mustangs’ 13-1 win.

GRINNELL — The Class 2A No. 9 East Marshall softball team got one last boost of confidence going into the postseason on Saturday at the Grinnell Tournament.

Not that the Mustangs needed it.

East Marshall closed out the regular season with its 15th-straight win, rattling off a 13-1, five-inning rout of 1A No. 8 Lynnville-Sully to cruise into 2A regional play with a 28-4 record.

Mustang junior third baseman Hannah Birks finished 4-for-4 with a career-high six RBIs, highlighted by a three-run home run that greeted Hawks relief pitcher Aliya James on her first offering of the third inning. Birks had run-scoring singles in the first, fourth and fifth innings as East Marshall marched into the postseason with yet another statement win.

“It’s been good, we’ve worked together as a team, our hitting really came around towards the end, we had some good defensive plays and I think we’re going in thinking we’ve got to play well against any team,” said Birks. “It’s good to go into regionals with a good team [like Lynnville-Sully] at the end. This was a good way to keep our heads up.”

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE - East Marshall’s Hannah Birks (14) is greeted at home plate by her teammates after hitting a three-run home run during the third inning of Saturday’s game against Lynnville-Sully in Grinnell.

Not that there’s been any reason to hang them. The Mustangs have won 15 in a row dating back to a 7-6 loss to 1A No. 5 BCLUW on June 13 in Conrad that decided the NICL West Division. Since that last defeat, East Marshall has been victorious against five ranked teams, highlighted by Monday’s 6-0 triumph over 2A No. 3 Pleasantville.

“We need to work on a few things, we’ve got some stuff we can work on in practice,” East Marshall head coach Jary Hoskey said, “but all-in-all we’re playing pretty well. We’re getting good pitching and timely hitting.”

Junior right-hander Kodie Hoskey handcuffed a Lynnville-Sully lineup averaging 7.2 runs per game, holding the Hawks (23-8) to just five singles while issuing no walks and striking out two. The Mustangs made just one error they erased moments later and countered by scoring more runs (13) than Lynnville-Sully had allowed in a game all season.

Hoskey’s heroism in the circle has probably been overshadowed by the East Marshall bats that back her. The Mustangs rank fourth in 2A and 10th in the entire state with 26 home runs as a team, meanwhile Hoskey has a 2.07 earned run average and 137 strikeouts in 132 innings, and she’s reduced her total walks from last season by half.

“Kodie’s the glue who keeps us together,” coach Hoskey said. “If you can scatter five hits on the tournament trail, that’s fine because we should move the ball on any pitcher that I think we’ve seen. We have, anyway, and 28-4’s not too bad.

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE - East Marshall sophomore Clare Veren (13) hustles toward third base on a double by Reagan McIlrath during the fifth inning of Saturday’s game against Lynnville-Sully in Grinnell. Veren scored two batters later on a sacrifice fly by Juliana Arifi, giving the Mustangs a 11-1 lead in an eventual 13-1 win.

“The kids have a bad taste in their mouth. The last two years we’ve been to the regional final and haven’t fired a shot, and I think this year if we get to the regional final we’ll go with our guns loaded this time.”

Scoring wasn’t a problem in the regular season for the Mustangs, as they averaged 8.84 runs per game. Saturday’s game in the Grinnell Tournament gave them a boost, too, after they tallied 13 runs on 12 hits in just five innings.

It started right away, too. Maria Rasmusson got a one-out single and Reagan McIlrath’s sacrifice bunt was misplayed. Juliana Arifi ripped a two-run, two-out double to right-center field, and Birks followed with a run-scoring single past the shortstop’s glove.

The Mustangs caught up to L-S starting pitcher Denali Conover in the third inning, as well. Rasmusson singled, McIlrath doubled her home and Madison Farrington followed with an RBI single down the left-field line. Arifi walked, prompting a pitching change by the Hawks, and Birks welcomed James into the game by bombing her first pitch over the fence in left for a three-run homer, her third of the season.

“I didn’t think about it,” Birks said of whether or not to swing at the new pitcher’s first pitch. “If I see it’s there, it’s just instinct I guess.”

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

The Mustangs kept the big inning alive, and Madison Duncan — running for her designated hitter Kayla Mommer — scored on Rasmusson’s single to left.

In the fourth, Farrington singled and her courtesy runner Abby Ryan eventually scored on a Birks single, and the Mustangs loaded the bases to chase James from the circle. Lynnville-Sully went back to Conover, who induced a 1-2-3 double play and escaped the jam she inherited.

The Hawks were back in hot water in the fifth after Rasmusson was hit by a pitch, McIlrath doubled and Farrington was plunked to load the bases again. Arifi came through with a run-scoring sacrifice fly to left, and Birks blooped an RBI single to left that actually led to two runs. As the throw went home too late to catch McIlrath scoring, Ryan hustled over to third and Birks headed for second. When the catcher’s throw to second base got away, Ryan scored without a play to make it 13-1.

Lynnville-Sully went down without incident in the bottom of the fifth, as Megan Van Zante’s one-out single to left went for naught as Hoskey got a pair of flyball outs to end the game.

“I thought Hannah Birks played an excellent game at third base and also with six RBIs, she had almost half of them,” coach Hoskey said. “It was her day.”

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

Birks had her career-high of four hits, Rasmusson was 3-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored, McIlrath went 2-for-3 with two doubles, an RBI and two runs scored, and Farrington finished 2-for-3 with an RBI. Ryan, her courtesy runner, scored three times.

Arifi ended 1-for-1 with two walks, two runs scored and three RBIs.

“It was exciting, I’ve been going through kind of a slump so getting good hits were a struggle,” said Birks. “But coming out with the hits I had felt real nice.”

Birks had struggled at the plate since her last home run, which came during the Mustangs’ doubleheader sweep of South Hardin on June 12 in Eldora. She went 1-for-3 in the loss to BCLUW, suffered an 0-for-17 cold streak and had batted .143 (5-for-35) with one double and four RBIs prior to Saturday’s regular-season finale.

It’s a relief for East Marshall to know it can win 14 in a row without its No. 6 hitter on top of her game, but refreshing to see what the team can do when Birks is swinging a productive bat.

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

“Maybe this year’s our year, maybe,” coach Hoskey said. “We’ve still got Belmond-Klemme or Eagle Grove and then (No. 15) Colfax-Mingo and (No. 4) Jesup is in the top bracket, so it’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to play well to get [to state], but I like the way we’re playing, I really do.”

East Marshall’s 2A Region 1 opener is Wednesday at 7 p.m. against the winner of Monday’s first-round pairing between Belmond-Klemme and Eagle Grove. The Mustangs will host the regional semifinals on Friday, and the regional final is July 15 at a site yet to be determined.

At Grinnell

East Marshall 13, Lynnville-Sully 1, 5 innings

EM 306 13 — 13 11 1

L-S 100 00 — 1 5 4

Kodie Hoskey and Madison Farrington; Denali Conover, Aliya James (3), Conover (4) and Korinne Jansen. W–Hoskey (17-3). L–Conover (20-6). 2B–EM: Reagan McIlrath 2, Juliana Arifi. HR–EM: Hannah Birks (3). LOB–EM 6, L-S 4.