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PREP SOFTBALL | CENTRAL SPRINGS 8, WEST FORK 2

2A No. 1 Panthers triumph over No. 11 Warhawks, in drivers seat for TIC-East title

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BJ Fessler called it one of the best at-bats of the season.

In a battle of at least nine pitches between Central Springs' Aurora Stepleton and West Fork's Libby Trewin on Wednesday night, almost everything was fouled off.

Until Stepleton got her pitch on a Trewin mistake.

A curveball that sunk to the outside part of the plate was right where Stepleton wanted it and she blasted it over the left-center field fence as the final dagger in the Class 2A No. 1 Panthers 8-2 Top of Iowa East victory over the No. 11 Warhawks at the West Fork Athletic Complex.

"It was a good win for us," Fessler said. "We barreled a lot of balls. We noticed some changes in her speed. We did a nice job of adjusting."

Stepleton recorded three hits on the day and scored twice to go along with her two RBIs on the home run. Her lone time not reaching base was when Trewin struck her out on a riseball.

Admittedly, Stepleton has been in a "hitting absence" at the plate. So her mindset in the sixth was to lay off the riseball. She saw a lot of curves and eventually turned on one.

"I'm really proud of myself," Stepleton said.

It was billed as a contest with conference title implications. Yet it also provided a tune-up to Central Springs' (20-1, 10-0 TIC-East) date with 2A No. 2 North Union on Thursday.

It showed no signs of looking too far ahead.

The Panthers ended the Warhawks scoreless streak of 48 innings with a run in the top of the first on an Abby Pate RBI single. In the second, they plated three runs on situational softball.

The Fessler sisters of Sharli and Kaylea had a sacrifice fly and squeeze bunt, respectively, then Madisyn Kelley ripped a two-out single to cap the frame. Stepleton's homer was the end of a three-run sixth.

"We preach grit," Coach Fessler said. "We might get out, and that's okay, but we want to make it tough to get us out."

Cooper Klaahsen fired a complete game with eight strikeouts. At times, she grimaced towards the dugout and was slow to go out into the circle for a couple frames.

Still, the junior all-state pitcher gutted it out and never got the ball taken out of her hands.

"It is a little painful after a seven inning game," Klaahsen said. "Just fighting through it."

Kelley notched two hits as did Pate and Azaria McDonough. Afterwards, Coach Fessler had all the girls run three sprints up and down just north of the infield.

Even in a win, he wants the Panthers to know the job still isn't finished.

"We're trying to take it one win at a time," Stepleton said. "He's just looking for us to get a little bit better each time."

West Fork (14-2, 9-2) saw its 11-game winning streak snapped. Both of its losses this season have come against the Panthers by margins of seven and six runs.

And for a lot of at-bats, it was just swinging to swing.

"It didn't even look like their normal swings," Warhawks head coach Sadie Winfrey said. "It almost looked like a defeated swing."

The second inning was the one she wanted back. Mallery Meier roped a double that rolled to the fence and West Fork had runners in scoring position with two outs.

Klaahsen induced a popup that Kelley snared and the threat was ended.

"That definitely changes things," Winfrey said. "It is discouraging to see some of the scores when other teams play them. Mental wise, we need to be there when it is not going our way."

The Warhawks avoided the shutout with a two-run double off the bat of Kaylie Lundt in the seventh. Prior to that frame, they had two total base runners from the third through the sixth frame.

Zach Martin is a sports reporter for the Globe Gazette. Reach him via email at zachary.martin@globegazette.com and follow him on Twitter @zach_martin95.

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