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Panthers attempt comeback, fall to Lynx in 2A state semifinals
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CLASS 2A STATE SEMIFINAL | NORTH LINN 8, CENTRAL SPRINGS 5

Panthers attempt comeback, fall to Lynx in 2A state semifinals

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FORT DODGE – Madisyn Kelley got her pitch – a heater at the belt – on a 2-1 count Wednesday afternoon.

It was just foul.

"I knew it was coming," Kelley said.

"Both her and I were like 'Dang, the rise ball's coming,'" Central Springs head coach Belinda Nelson added. "It is a good pitch."

On the very next pitch, North Linn pitcher Ellie Flanagan did exactly what Nelson and Kelley thought she would do.

That rise ball soared and Kelley swung and missed to end the game, the Panthers' comeback chance and the dreams of a Class 2A state title game all in a 8-5 semifinal heartbreaker to the Lynx at the Rogers Sports Complex.

"I just didn't get on top of it," Kelley said. "I knew it was going to be difficult. I knew she was going to try and hit her corners. You know, things don't always go as planned."

Second-ranked North Linn (41-6) advances to its third straight title game on Thursday night against seventh-ranked Earlham, who upended top-ranked Wilton 9-6 in the other semifinal. 

Fifth-ranked Central Springs (30-7) will meet the Beavers in the third-place game at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

"We never gave up," junior outfielder Kaylea Fessler said. "We were cheering loud. They had a lot of hits and we weren't expecting that."

After giving up three runs on four hits in the bottom of the sixth, the Panthers needed to put some runners on in order to get back to Kelley in the do-or-die seventh.

"We talked to them about being patient and maybe get a full count," Nelson said. "Our biggie was to get Kaylea and her (Kelley) back up because they've done damage for us all year."

They happily obliged.

Emme Dietrich launched a leadoff home run to straight away center. Fessler laced a one-out single, then Lizzy Hamand reached on a two-out base hit to bring Kelley, the tying run to the plate.

"We waited for our pitch," Kelley said.

After the strikeout, the Lynx were sent into a euphoric celebration. Central Springs left the field with some players in tears.

"We never thought we didn't have a chance," Fessler said. "We kept pushing and pushing and never quit. I'm proud of the way we handled the pressure of it."

From the first inning on, the Panthers were trailing. North Linn's Jill Smith hit a sacrifice fly to put the Lynx on the board in the first inning. Then in the second, North Linn's No. 9 hitter Olivia Rauch slapped a triple and crossed home on an error. 

Leadoff hitter Skylar Benesh ripped a solo shot to make it a 3-0 lead. The Lynx finished with 11 hits, three apiece from Benesh and Kaitlyn Sommerfelt.

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Fessler called North Linn's lineup on par with Ankeny's lineup in terms of difficulty. Kelley and Nelson felt it was the best lineup they had faced this season.

"This is the best team we've faced and I tip my hat to them, they're an amazing team," Kelley said.

Central Springs, which had just one base runner through the first three innings, couldn't come up with that game-tying run. The Panthers got close multiple times.

Kelley belted a pair of two-run home runs, one in the fourth and the other in the sixth, to make three run leads by the Lynx shrink to just one. She's up to 10 long balls this season.

"Once we had those two awesome hits, I was like 'This is it, this is the momentum we need,'" Kelley said. "Just tying it, that was our first goal."

Nelson called it "confidence" that her catcher was able to hit off Flanagan.

"She was going to do anything she could to get to that championship game, anyway she could," she said.

Central Springs got its leadoff hitter on base in five of the seven innings. It stranded Fessler on second base in the first frame, and left runners on second and third in the fourth down 3-2.

After Abby Pate popped up on the infield, Nelson headed back to the dugout knowing the Panthers squandered a chance.

"I was like, 'We needed to score one there,'" Nelson said.

"We need to have a better mindset and push in the beginning, not in the fourth and through the (seventh)," Fessler added.

Cooper Klaashen, despite giving up two home runs, struck out 11 batters and wiggled out of jams that prevented the Lynx from breaking the game open.

The Panthers sophomore right-hander struck out three straight with runners in scoring position in the third and fanned two straight batters after giving up her second home run to Jill Smith in the fifth.

"That's a lot of strikeouts against a very good team that sees that type of pitching," Nelson said. "That's pretty impressive."

Fessler and Hamand joined Kelley in finishing with two hits for Central Springs. The Panthers still have a chance for their highest finish at the state tournament since a fourth-place finish in 2018.

That will be the motivating factor for Central Springs in Thursday's third-place matchup with Wilton.

"We're all frustrated, but we're going to put that behind us," Fessler said.

North Linn 8, Central Springs 5

Central Springs;000;202;1;--;5;8;3

North Linn;102;023;x;--;8;11;0

Cooper Klaahsen and Madisyn Kelley; Ellie Flanagan and Jenna Lemley. WP -- Flanagan (23-2). LP -- Klaahsen (22-3). Two or more hits -- Central Springs, Kelley, Kaylea Fessler, Lizzy Hamand; North Linn, Skylar Benesh 3, Kaitlyn Sommerfelt 3, Jill Smith, Olivia Rauch. 2B -- North Linn, Benesh. 3B -- North Linn, Rauch. HR -- Central Springs, Kelley 2, Emme Dietrich; North Linn, Benesh, Smith. RBIs -- Central Springs, Kelley 4, Dietrich; North Linn, Smith 3, Benesh 2, Rauch.

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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