FORT DODGE, Iowa — For the past half-dozen years, the Pleasant Valley softball team has been one of the most prolific home-run hitting teams in the state.
The long ball has been the game-changer for the Spartans at the state tournament.
After an Alexia Lara home run powered PV to a nine-inning quarterfinal win Tuesday, it was another deep ball that carried the Spartans back to the Class 5A title game.
Sophomore Carli Spelhaug ripped a game-winning blast in the fifth inning to propel seventh-ranked PV to a 2-1 semifinal win over No. 6 Urbandale on Thursday afternoon at a steamy Rogers Sports Complex.
“All of us are such powerful hitters,” Spelhaug said. “We don’t try and hit home runs, but we lift so much and work so hard off the field that it gives us the power numbers.”
PV (34-8) has smacked 54 home runs this season, second in the state. The Spartans led the state in long balls in 2012 and ’13 and were second in ’14 and ’15.
The Spartans are in a state championship for a second consecutive summer. They’ll play top-ranked Waukee (40-3) at 12:27 p.m. Friday seeking the program's first state crown.
“We’re back,” winning pitcher Ellie Spelhaug said. “We have unfinished business. Our thought all season was our mission continues. We have one more level to complete and that’s (Friday).”
While Carli Spelhaug’s homer sent PV over the top, it was the damage control the Spartans did early in the game that allowed them to stay in reach.
Urbandale (32-9) stranded 10 baserunners in the contest, five in scoring position. The J-Hawks had plenty of traffic in the first two innings, but Spelhaug and PV’s defense held them to just one run.
“We knew it was going to be a close game,” PV catcher Hannah Mausser said. “Every run, every pitch was going to count. To not give up more than one early was huge.”
Carli Spelhaug made a couple important defense plays, including throwing out Urbandale’s speedy leadoff hitter, Skyler Shellmyer, at home on a fielder’s choice in the opening inning.
Then in the second, Spelhaug snagged a line drive to her left with the bases loaded.
“These girls stay on their toes and they don’t panic in those situations,” coach Jose Lara said. “We’ve got to play defense, and you do damage control by controlling the runners. Pitching is key. We want to force them to hit our pitches.”
PV answered with a run in the bottom of the second. Eighth grader Emily Wood laced a single and moved to third after Tara Theusch reached on infield error.
With one out, Lara elected to put on the squeeze and Rachel Tebbe bunted Wood home.
“It was an outside pitch and I just took off,” Wood said. “I trusted her so much to get it down.”
The Spartans, though, had limited scoring chances against Urbandale’s Bella Crow. She struck out five, walked none and surrendered only four hits.
Her one mistake was the difference-maker.
With two out in the fifth and a 1-1 count, Carli Spelhaug deposited Crow’s pitch over the fence in left-center.
“I was just thinking, ‘I had to get on base to get us some momentum,’” she said. “Right when it came off my bat, I knew it was over. It was the best feeling.”
Carli Spelhaug sprinted around the bases.
“I was just so excited I couldn’t wait to touch home,” she said.
After Ellie Spelhaug worked five innings, Alexia Lara came in and finished it off. Lara struck out four and yielded just a bunt single to Shellmyer, who had three of Urbandale’s seven hits.
Lara hasn’t allowed a run in 6 1/3 innings in two state tournament games.
“Alexia is a stud, a ball player,” Mausser said. “She comes in and knows what she has to do and gets the job done.”
Like Tuesday, PV was overjoyed around the pitching circle following Lara’s final strikeout to end it. A year after a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Johnston, the Spartans have a chance to flip the script.
“This has been our mission the whole season,” Carli Spelhaug said. “We knew this team could do it, but we’re not done. We’ve been hungry all season and we’re finally back.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position to redeem ourselves from last year and hopefully come out on top.”
Waukee, which beat Cedar Rapids Kennedy 2-0 in the other semifinal, blanked PV 5-0 at the Iowa City West tournament on June 30.
The Spartans have a chance to avenge that defeat, too.
“Our intrinsic motivation is at a high level,” coach Lara said. “Our tanks are full again and we’re peaking. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to peak at this time of the year and we’re right on time.”