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One pitch can change the complexion of a game. None was bigger than one in the fourth inning Tuesday night. 

As Burlington’s softball team whittled Pleasant Valley’s four-run lead in half and had a baserunner at first, no outs and the clean-up hitter stepping in, the Grayhounds had plenty of life in their dugout.

One pitch silenced them.

After pitcher Ellie Spelhaug shook off a line drive to the left knee on the previous pitch, she recorded a double play and the top-ranked Spartans earned their third consecutive trip to the Class 5A state tournament with a 4-2 victory in a regional final at PV's softball diamond. 

“The double play took the wind out of our sails,” Burlington coach Larry Heath said. “It probably was the difference in the ball game.”

Alivia Fawcett hit the ball right at second baseman Carli Spelhaug. She flipped to shortstop Mallory Lafever and the junior threw on to Alexia Lara at first. Lara gave a big fist pump.

“We always talk about stopping the bleeding,” Lara said. “Once that double play happened, momentum shifted our way and we had it back and rolled with it.”

The Spartans (33-7) face unranked Iowa City High in a quarterfinal at 5 p.m. next Tuesday at the Rogers Sports Complex in Fort Dodge. PV and City High split a doubleheader in late May.

PV has gone to the state tournament as the hunter the past two seasons. It will be the hunted as the top seed and defending champion.

“We know we have a big target,” coach Jose Lara said. “Every time we play, everybody is getting better and better. Everybody is excited to play us and wants to beat us.

“We want the competition to be better than us, so we can rise to that level.”

PV has been in the state’s top 10 all season. It was 6-5 in early June, but has won 27 of its last 29 games.

It has done so behind a potent top half of the lineup — Carli Spelhaug, Emily Wood, Ellie Spelhaug, Alexia Lara and Bell Luebken — along with the two-headed pitching attack of Ellie Spelhaug and Lara.

Lead-off hitter Carli Spelhaug deposited the first pitch she saw from Iowa State recruit Makaylin Powers over the fence in center for a home run.

“I’ve had a couple this season on the first pitch, but this is definitely more special than those,” she said. “I like to swing first pitch. It was a changeup, and we talked about in our scouting report that they like to start with first-pitch changeup.

“I sat on it and found my sweet spot.”

The Spartans tacked on in the third inning.

Carli Spelhaug and Wood delivered back-to-back singles and Ellie Spelhaug walked to load the bases.

With one out, Alexia Lara rifled Powers’ 1-0 pitch into left field for a two-run single. A double steal and wild pitch brought Ellie Spelhaug around to score later in the frame.

“Early in the count I usually look for my pitch,” Lara said. “Later in the count, I have to adjust. I was looking for my pitch and it was a good one.”

After Spelhaug got out of the fourth, keyed by the double play, she tossed a perfect fifth and then handed it over to Lara. She struck out three and allowed only one baserunner over the final two innings to get the save.

“Hats off to Burlington, they’re a good squad,” coach Lara said. “We needed that test. We need a good test going into state. Otherwise, how do we know we belong there? They gave us the test we needed.”

Heath, whose team finished 31-10, felt PV’s big-game experience showed.

“We competed hard, but they’re a very difficult team to beat and they’ve been in this situation before,” he said. “We’re learning to get there.”

The win extends seniors Ellie Spelhaug and Lara's careers another week. Spelhaug is off to play basketball at Bradley and Lara will continue her softball career at Drake. 

"I'm so happy, so excited," Ellie said. "It is another week with these girls, and I get one more week with my little sister."

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Sports Editor

Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.