JOHNSTON, Iowa — The Pleasant Valley softball team’s season ended the past two seasons with tears of joy. The 2019 campaign came to a close Tuesday night with tears of heartbreak.
In a back-and-forth tussle between top-10 teams, described by multiple players as an "emotional rollercoaster," Johnston had the last word and halted PV’s quest for a possible state three-peat.
After PV snared a three-run lead in the top half of the seventh inning, Johnston retaliated with four runs in the bottom half to squeak out a 9-8 victory in a Class 5A regional final at Johnston Middle School.
“We go from jumping over the fence and screaming as loud as we could at home (plate) to being in tears the next moment,” PV outfielder Emily Wood said. "That's the hardest part."
The Spartans grabbed the lead. The Dragons tied it. PV would respond. Johnston would answer.
“It was like a heavyweight match,” Johnston coach Todd Merical said. “Each team would take a blow, but they’d keep coming back.”
Knotted at 5 in the seventh, PV pushed across three runs. Carli Spelhaug ripped a leadoff double and later scored on a fielder’s choice. Kaitlyn Drish followed with a two-run homer.
The Spartans came racing out of the dugout to greet Drish at home plate.
“There was so much excitement, but you have to keep your composure,” Wood said.
PV relief pitcher Christin Hartman got the leadoff hitter out in the bottom of the seventh before Johnston (34-8) had the next six hitters reach (five hits and a walk).
Chloe Fehn placed a ball right on the line in right field for a two-run double to tie it. With the winning run at third, Abbie Thilges poked a single to left to score Sophia Maras for the game-winner to set off a raucous celebration for the fifth-ranked Dragons.
“It was just hard because there were a lot of ups and downs throughout that game,” Spelhaug said. “Staying level-headed was definitely a challenge.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these girls because we fought until the end.”
Despite a three-run deficit, Merical said his team was confident in the bottom of the seventh. Some of that came from overcoming 4-1 and 5-4 margins earlier in the game.
“You saw it in their eyes,” Merical said. “They kept saying, 'We can do this, we can do this.' Anytime that happens and you get the ball rolling with momentum, it infuses a lot of confidence.”
PV (27-13) did plenty offensively.
The Spartans had 13 hits, with every spot in the order accounting for at least one safety. Wood finished with three hits while Drish and Carly Lundry each had two.
“We knew we were going to have to score a lot of runs,” Spelhaug said. “They’re a great offensive team.”
The Spartans had been in the state finals each of the past three seasons, losing to Johnston in the 2016 championship before beating Waukee and Indianola the past two seasons.
With the graduation of all-state pitchers Ellie Spelhaug and Alexia Lara after last season’s repeat, some on the outside felt this almost was a rebuilding season.
PV finished third place in the Mississippi Athletic Conference, 10th in the final 5A rankings and nearly back in Fort Dodge.
“This group really worked hard,” PV coach Jose Lara said. “The hours they put in to be that good, to me it is bittersweet because they did fight. We’re going to build on that resiliency.
"This team will be remembered for perseverance and grit."
The Spartans lose just one senior. It is a significant departure in Spelhaug, a five-year starter, captain of the all-tournament team twice at state and headed to play softball at Iowa State.
“The kids that are coming up the ranks that aspire to play PV softball, take a look at what those kids are leaving behind,” Lara said. “They embrace what PV softball stands for, and that’s why we’ve been able to do what we’ve done the past few years. They buy into it.”
Spelhaug tried to fight back the tears afterward. She couldn’t.
“Yeah, we’re out here playing softball, but it is the relationships you make off the field,” she said. “These girls are my best friends, and I’ve had the best coaches that have allowed me to make it to the next level and make me the player I am today.
“I couldn’t be more thankful for everything PV softball has done for me. It has been a fun ride."